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Hyperion Records

CDA67915 - Pixis & Thalberg: Piano Concertos
CDA67915
Recording details: May 2011
Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
Produced by Ben Connellan
Engineered by Veronika Vincze
Release date: November 2012
Total duration: 70 minutes 5 seconds

'Howard Shelley gives us fine performances. There's exquisite filigree in the Pixis, while the Thalberg has swagger and panache' (The Guardian)

'The music is played with obvious affection and deep understanding, revealing to us, almost 200 years later, just what it was that attracted audiences of the late Georgian period. Nor … is any of the music entirely formulaic … throughout these three works, Shelley's elegance of phrasing and comprehensively musical technique are truly exceptional: cleverly, his dynamic range is judged to a nicety and the orchestral playing is remarkably fine throughout. The recorded sound is first-class in all respects. Jeremy Nicholas's notes are everything they should be—and more … truly, here is commerce in the service of art' (International Record Review)

The Romantic Piano Concerto
Pixis & Thalberg: Piano Concertos
Allegro moderato  [13'19]
Adagio cantabile  [3'57]
Allegro moderato  [5'51]
Adagio sostenuto  [5'43]
Allegro maestoso  [12'12]
Adagio  [3'21]
Rondo: Allegro  [10'03]

This 58th volume of the Romantic Piano Concerto series presents two composer-pianists who contributed to Liszt’s piano extravaganza Hexaméron (1837).

Thalberg (who would be celebrating his 200th birthday in 2012) famously took part in a pianistic ‘duel’ with Liszt, and was popularly acclaimed as the greatest pianist in the world during his lifetime. He only wrote one piano concerto, and that in his teens, but it is a brilliantly effective showpiece for virtuosity and stamina, the pianist’s hands barely leaving the piano. Johann Peter Pixis has now been consigned—perhaps unfairly—to the oblivion where so many early 19th-century composers dwell. These are world premiere recordings of his charming Piano Concerto and Piano Concertino.

Howard Shelley, undisputed master of the music of the early Romantic period, directs the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra from the keyboard with his usual insouciance and poise.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Johann Peter Pixis and Sigismond Thalberg (or Sigismund; spellings of his first name vary) would appear to have little in common apart from being pianists and composers. Pixis, born into the be-wigged world of 1788, came from a family of musicians. Thalberg, younger by nearly a quarter of a century, came from … well, that is a complicated matter of which more later. Yet there are at least some superficial connections between them, and a few serendipitous coincidences.

The two first met when Thalberg received a few piano lessons from Pixis in Paris (as he also did from Kalkbrenner and Moscheles in London and, possibly, Hummel in Vienna). But the one indissoluble link is that both men were contributors to Liszt’s piano extravaganza Hexaméron (1837), along with two other Paris-based pianists, Herz and Chopin, as well as Czerny, all of whom supplied a variation on a theme from Bellini’s I Puritani (Thalberg wrote Variation 1, Pixis wrote Variation 3). Paradoxically, it is chiefly through this collaborative work with its vade mecum of current piano styles (a stylistic separation reflected in the works presented on this recording) that Pixis’s name is remembered today. Thalberg, if he too registers at all, has the benefit of having his name linked with Liszt’s, for he was for many years considered to be the equal—and by some the superior—of Liszt as a pianist and composer. The story is well known of the so-called ‘duel’ between them at the Princess Belgiojoso’s salon to determine which was the better player. Princess Belgiojoso’s diplomatic verdict was that Thalberg was the greatest pianist in the world, but there was only one Liszt.

Both Pixis and Thalberg wrote two unsuccessful operas: Thalberg’s Florinda (1851, despite Lablache and Grisi in the cast, and Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort in the audience) and Cristina di Svezia (1855) failed to impress, as did Pixis’s Bibiana (1831, written for the distinguished soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient) and Die Sprache des Herzens (1836). Furthermore, both pianist–composers had ‘daughters’ who became opera singers—at least Pixis’s adopted daughter, Franzilla Güringer, became a well-known mezzo-soprano, while Zaré Thalberg, long thought to be Thalberg’s daughter and who sang for six seasons at Covent Garden in the 1870s, now appears merely to have adopted the pianist’s name having been born Ethel Western in Derbyshire, England (she died in the London suburb of Finchley, in 1915). Both men retired prematurely to their respective villas—Pixis to teach in Baden-Baden, Thalberg to grow vines in Posilippo—rarely venturing out to be heard in public again. Both had been forgotten by the musical world long before their deaths. Pixis’s music disappeared entirely; a few of Thalberg’s opera fantasies (on Rossini’s Moses in Egypt, for example) and his once-celebrated Variations on Home, Sweet Home lingered on in the repertoire of some pianists.

Pixis’s father, Friedrich Wilhelm, was a pupil of Abbé Vogler; his elder brother (also Friedrich Wilhelm) was a violinist and a pupil of Viotti. Johann Peter was born in Mannheim, made his debut at the age of nine and toured with his sibling throughout Germany. He settled in Munich for a time but in 1825 made his base in Paris where he established himself as a much-respected pianist and teacher. From the French capital, Adam Liszt, on the first concert tour with his son Franz, wrote to Czerny to tell him how Pixis had ‘not condescended to notice us. Although a rival like this is not powerful enough to do us any harm, he will be censured by others for such conduct.’ A decade later, Franz Liszt and Pixis enjoyed a friendly relationship, hence the invitation to contribute to Hexaméron and an indication of the esteem in which Pixis was held (Chopin’s Fantasy on Polish Airs, Op 13, is dedicated to him).

Pixis’s [Grand] Piano Concerto in C major, Op 100, was composed in 1829 and dedicated to ‘His Imperial Majesty of Austria’. The work sets out in conventional form (Allegro moderato) with an orchestral exposition of the first movement’s two principal themes, the first of which makes much play with a dotted quaver–semiquaver–crotchet (or semibreve) figure that appears throughout in various guises. The soloist’s first declamatory entry seems to be an independent idea which quickly subsides into the lyrical second subject. The soloist is kept busily occupied, the orchestra offering cushioned support, until at 7'05'', after a tutti, the key modulates unexpectedly from the tonic to E flat major with the soloist introducing an entirely new idea (at 7'42''). Hardly have we settled to this but Pixis changes course again with a lovely nocturne-like theme in F sharp major (con molto espressione) which eventually returns to the home key via D major and to that insistent opening dotted figure. After a re-examination of the earlier material the movement ends in triumphant style.

The brief second movement (Adagio cantabile), in the key of A flat major and with the unusual time signature of 12/8, begins in arresting fashion with tremolo strings. When it enters, the piano is again in nocturnal mood (more Field than Chopin) but becomes ever more elaborate with its decorative figurations until a full-blown cadenza at 3'15''. After a few moments of reflection, the piano leads directly and without reference to the orchestra into the perky 2/4 rondo theme of the finale (Allegretto scherzando). The recapitulation of this leads to the introduction of fresh ideas, briefly in the same key as the slow movement (4'27''). A fermata at 7'30'' and a ‘Waltzing Matilda’ horn fanfare herald the coda and a dash for the finishing line.

The Concertino in E flat major, Op 68, seems to have been composed in about 1824 and must be counted as one of the most charming works of its kind. Pixis dedicated it ‘à son ami Camillé [sic] Pleyel’, son of Ignaz Pleyel, the composer–pianist, violinist and founder of the famous piano company. Camille (1788–1855) became a partner in the firm in 1821, and was joined three years later—the same time as the probable date of the Concertino—by Friedrich Kalkbrenner (see Hyperion CDA67535 and CDA67843 for his four piano concertos). The Concertino has three movements, each of which follows the other virtually without a break. The orchestral introduction to the work accounts for more than one third of the first movement (Allegro moderato) before the piano enters with a call to arms. Pixis returns to this idea only twice more before the soloist’s scamperings give way to a tutti and a gradual decrescendo that takes us directly into the haunting Adagio sostenuto in B flat major. Initially, the cellos provide a steady pulse (3/4) underneath an exquisite piano theme. Midway through the movement this is transferred to a solo horn with the piano providing conversational counterpoint. A brief cadenza leads to another of Pixis’s jaunty rondo themes for the Concertino’s last movement (Allegretto).

A full and accurate account of Thalberg’s life has yet to be written. His birth and parentage would need a chapter to themselves. Almost every reference book states that he was born in Geneva in 1812, the natural son of Count Moritz von Dietrichstein and the Baroness von Wetzlar. (The Count, incidentally, was a good amateur musician and was one of the fifty-one composers invited by Diabelli to contribute to Vaterländischer Künstlerverein, a collection of variations on a waltz theme he had penned; the Count wrote Variation 6, Pixis wrote Variation 31; Beethoven, you will recall, submitted a set of 33.) The reality is far more complicated, laid out in full by Dudley Newton in The Sigismund Thalberg Society Newsletter (Vol. 4, Number 1, 1993, Supplement; reprinted from The Liszt Society Journal, Volume 16, 1991). In brief, it seems most likely that his father was Joseph Thalberg, the natural son of Moritz’s elder brother Prince Franz-Joseph von Dietrichstein, and that his mother was called Fortunée Stein. What is not in any doubt is that Sigismond Thalberg was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and doted on by his paternal grandfather, the Prince. To be handsome, cultured, a brilliant pianist with blue blood in his veins and illegitimate was almost too much good fortune for one man.

With an easy entrée into all the right circles, Thalberg embarked on his career as a pianist–composer in 1830 with the obligatory piano concerto. Only five years later he was one of the most famous musicians in Europe, appointed pianist to the Emperor of Austria and hailed as the leader of a new school of musical thought. Many highly regarded and influential musicians—Czerny, Fétis and Moscheles among them—believed that the innovations Thalberg brought to the piano ushered in a modern style of piano-playing that would have lasting value. To make the piano a singing instrument was his chief aim, best illustrated by his famous ‘three-handed’ effect which he achieved by dividing a melody between the two hands, sustained by adroit pedalling, thereby leaving either free hand to play brilliant figurations above and below. It gave the effect of two pianists playing. People used to stand on their chairs to see how he did it. Thalberg was not the first person to use the idea but was the first to develop it as a pianistic feature, which he did, along with a handful of other technical advances, in his many opera paraphrases and variations. Though easily sneered at, they became his trademark and indeed were far more popular at the time than, for example, any of Chopin’s compositions. Thalberg’s textural and pedalling innovations were a great influence on the keyboard-writing of succeeding generations and are still with us today.

None of these is evident, however, in Thalberg’s Piano Concerto in F minor, Op 5, his single essay in the genre. It was composed in about 1830 (published in 1831) when he was still in his teens and much influenced by Weber and Hummel. If it is not as distinguished a work as the F minor concertos of his contemporaries Chopin and Henselt, in the right hands it remains a brilliantly effective showpiece that requires a virtuoso technique and not a little stamina.

After the orchestral statement of the two principal themes, there are just twenty-two bars of the first movement (Allegro maestoso) in which the pianist’s hands are not engaged with the keyboard. Rapid passages in octaves and thirds are grist to the mill, though after a particularly arduous section with fast repeated chords (shades of Schubert’s Erlkönig) some respite is offered as the music modulates into the tonic major (with a brief deflection into F sharp major) before a bravura cadenza.

The slow movement (Adagio), the least impressive of the three, offers scant breathing space before the sprightly rondo (Allegro). This has two themes, one in the minor, the other a major-key variant. Like a juggler, Thalberg keeps them both in the air, putting them through any number of transformations until the dashing coda when, just before the final tutti, he presents one final cruel hurdle: four bars of fast independent octaves in each hand (to be played molto staccato) followed by a rush of triplets. The orchestra eagerly takes over rounding off this youthful work in a suitably rousing manner.

Thalberg must have been quite a pianist—and it must have been quite something to watch him play this work with the absolute stillness and economy of movement for which he was noted, the very opposite of his rival Liszt. He was one of the first major pianists to tour North America and Brazil, which he did in 1855 and from 1856 to 1858. By the end of his second visit (with the violinist Vieuxtemps) he had amassed a vast fortune—more than Anton Rubinstein or even Paderewski made—and decided to retire. Asked why he no longer composed, Thalberg replied: ‘Alas, my imitators have made me impossible.’

Jeremy Nicholas © 2012


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