Lisa MacKinney
Limelight, Australia
September 2020

Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin has recorded a staggering 60 albums for Hyperion, many of which are forays into piano music that has been neglected or otherwise overlooked. He is also justly famous for the originality, formidable technique and artistic brilliance evident in his performances, particularly of core nineteenth-century repertoire.

On this latest recording, Hamelin turns his attention to works by that most famous of piano virtuosi, Franz Liszt (1811–1886) and his lesser known Swiss contemporary and rival, Sigismond Thalberg (1812–1871). The centrepiece is Liszt’s Hexaméron (1837), an unusual work with an equally unusual genesis. A set of variations on the ‘March of the Puritans’ from Bellini’s I Puritani, it was commissioned by Princess Cristina Belgiojoso-Trivulzio, an Italian noblewoman at whose Paris salon the infamous ‘piano duel’ between Liszt and Thalberg for the title of world’s greatest pianist took place in 1837.

Belgiojoso-Trivulzio asked six of Paris’s leading Paris pianists (including, in addition to the duellers, Czerny and Chopin) to submit a variation each, which Liszt then arranged, DJ mix style, into an integrated whole. Liszt also penned an introduction, connecting passages and finale, ensuring that he had the last thunderous word in 'unanswerable pyrotechnics,' as composer and scholar Francis Pott puts it in his erudite and very amusing liner notes. Hexaméron requires immense technical prowess and dynamic pianism, which Hamelin has in spades: his playing is muscular, precise and unwavering in intensity.

Two fantasies by Thalberg on operatic themes provide a better window into his compositional style than a variation drowned in Liszt: the Grande Fantaisie sur des Motifs de Don Pasquale (Donizetti) is replete with pianistic fireworks while his Fantaisie sur des Thèmes de Moïse (Rossini), although similarly explosive, deploys lengthy passages of Chopin-like lyricism to captivating effect.

Two other operatic reworkings by Liszt complete this program: his introspective, turbulent Paraphrase de Concert sur Ernani II (Verdi), and the similarly agitated Réminiscences de Norma: Grande Fantaisie (Bellini). These are dynamic works of relentless, thundering pianism recorded with a rich depth and presence. A thrilling roller-coaster ride not for the faint-hearted.

Limelight, Australia