Classical CD Reviews

The Romantic Piano Concerto – Vol. 58 = PIXIS: Piano Concerto in C Major; Concertino in E-flat Major; THALBERG: Piano Concerto in F Minor – Tasmanian Sym. Orch. /Howard Shelley, p. and cond. – Hyperion

Quite a workout for any self-styled virtuoso, these showpieces by Pixis and Thalberg, the latter Liszt's most admired rival as a keyboard phenomenon.

Published on November 8, 2012

The Romantic Piano Concerto – Vol. 58 = PIXIS: Piano Concerto in C Major; Concertino in E-flat Major; THALBERG: Piano Concerto in F Minor – Tasmanian Sym. Orch. /Howard Shelley, p. and cond. – Hyperion

The Romantic Piano Concerto – Vol. 58 = PIXIS: Piano Concerto in C Major, Op. 100; Concertino in E-flat Major, Op. 68; THALBERG: Piano Concerto in F Minor, Op. 5 – Tasmanian Sym. Orch. /Howard Shelley, p. and cond. – Hyperion CDA67915, 70:10 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Johann Peter Pixis (1788-1874), pianist and pedagogue, may be recalled as the dedicatee of the Fantasy on Polish Airs, Op. 13 of Chopin. Pixis counts among the contributors to Liszt’s inflated extravaganza Hexameron (1837), and he coached the younger virtuoso Sigismond Thalberg in Paris. Howard Shelley (rec. 10-14 May 2011) extends his survey into neglected keyboard literature with the 1829 Piano Concerto in C Major by Pixis, rather delicately scored – even in its quasi-martial first movement fanfares and dotted rhythmic sallies – alternating with rather conventional fioritura that warbles or cascades in the salon fashion of Paris that marks the Chopin concertos and their cushioned orchestral support.  The Allegro moderato continues by assuming the form of a nocturne – con molto espessione – that modulates to the supertonic before resolving into the home C Major. In its more agitated episodes, the writing certainly has the national pomp we know from Hummel and Chopin, though the intellectual content remains meager. Shelley himself proves infinitely deft at the various flourishes, running passages, and broken staccati taken at an impressively brisk clip. The coda sounds like a transposition of a Paganini fanfare attached to bold piano work in Parisian style.

The Adagio cantabile, opening in the 12/8 signature and aerial A-flat Major, sets forth another nocturne in the John Field mode. The leggier filigree might share procedures with the Chopin model in the F Minor Concerto; even a dark color infiltrates the proceedings that lead to showy cadenza. Without preliminaries, we are thrown into a 2/4 Allegretto scherzando of rather jaunty character. The writing may be glibly superficial, but it bubbles with bravura confidence. Nice woodwind accompaniment urges the music forward, glistening and virtuosically shallow. The perky rondo moves gracefully to the A-flat Major of the second movement, the winds, strings, and horns in sprightly colors.  Introducing the coda, a horn motif signifies “Waltzing Matilda” so that the piano can institute yet another series of gliding runs that helter-skelter lead to the pompous final chords.

Pixis composed his three-movement Concertino in E-flat Major c. 1824, and much of it at first resembles a woodwind serenade. The keyboard enters well past two minutes into the opening Allegro moderato with a resoluto tune that soon picks up pizzicato strings. The bravura filigree sets in , and we might think this is a potpourri by Weber. The right hand treble line moves the piece forward, and its lightness and finesse seem a cross between Chopin, Mendelssohn, and our idea of later Saint-Saens. The orchestral tutti segues directly into the Adagio sostenuto in B-flat Major. Between soft cellos and later solo horn – extensive enough to wish Dennis Brain had recorded it -  the 3/4 pulse generates tender nostalgia and numerous trills. An ornamental parlando episode sets us up for the Rondo: Allegretto almost Schubertian in its lightly debonair character.

Sigismond Thalberg (1812-1871) rivaled Liszt as the most polished piano virtuoso of his time, and his one piano concerto, modeled on Weber and Hummel, names the latter as its dedicatee. The F Minor Concerto (1830) relishes the stamina of the solo pianist, demanding his constant application for all but twenty-two bars of music. Thalberg mixes two main themes, rife with octaves and thirds, staccato and glissando alternations, and ascending trills. A fascinating sequence involves a series of staccati and tremolandi that seem stolen from Schubert’s Der Erlkoenig. The dark and light shift in a dramatically symphonic manner reminiscent of the Weber Konzertstuck. The first movement gradually, circuitously, moves to F Major and a flashy cadenza that exploits Thalberg’s patented three-hand effects. A brief Adagio opens with woodwind scoring that could have led to the Waltz of the Flowers. Instead, it’s all roulades and glitter, sensitive but strictly glass for a vanity case. The bold rhetoric that announces the last movement, Rondo: Allegro, initiates a chain of acrobatic effects set as two themes, one in major and one in minor. A natural showpiece, the Rondo revels in its own finesse, a pianist’s equivalent of a Paganini violin concerto finale. A knotty few measures before the coda demand staccato octaves in each hand with a cluster of triplets, just to keep a soloist digitally alert.  Quite a workout for any self-styled virtuoso!

Sound quality, courtesy of Simon Eadon, remains true to Hyperion’s best form. [Can you believe this is Volume 58 of the Hyperion Piano Concerto Series?...Ed.]

—Gary Lemco




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