Twenty-five years hence, it’s good to turn these pages again, to savour the stratospheric pyrotechnics and matured emotions of an artist so imperially in command. Longest, at 21 minutes, is Hexaméron. Central to its near-mythical genesis was a Latin princess—champion of Garibaldi and Mazzini, mistress to an age, lover of Lafayette and Heine, reputedly even George Sand, companion to Bellini, Meyerbeer and Dumas, authority on the harems of Constantinople, ‘bird of curious plumage’. Cristina di Belgiojoso-Trivulzio. Twenty-eight. On 31 March 1837 she put on a charity bazaar in aid of impoverished Italian refugees, inviting the most fashionable musicians of the season to her Paris salon, rue d’Anjou, 8ème arrondissement. Heading the bill were Liszt and Thalberg—'two talents whose rivalry at this time agitates the musical world' (Gazette Musicale) challenged to a ‘joust’ with transcriptions for lances. 'Thalberg is the first pianist in the world,' Mme la Princesse ruled, mindful of diplomacy, but Liszt—'Liszt is the only one' (le seul).
Intended to top the unusual, Hexaméron—'Morceau de Concert/Grandes/Variations de Bravoure/pour piano/sur la/Marche des Puritains de Bellini'—was a compilation stitched together by Liszt with 'no pretention or intention of doing anything but entertain a crowd of rich patricians who were to be relieved of a considerable sum of money for a worthy cause' (Lewenthal). Had all the composers commissioned to veneer this digest (Thalberg, Pixis, Herz, Czerny, Chopin) met the hour—a cameo performance from each—it would been an astonishing encounter of hands. Only they failed, leaving history to speculate on what might have been. Nucleus of the work is the strident revolutionist number 'Suoni la tromba' (Sound the trumpet for liberty), the baritone/bass duet from the finale to Act II of ‘I Puritani’ premiered in Paris two years earlier, which Tamburini and Lablache used to bellow with such might, Rossini quipped, that it must have been heard as far away as Vesuvius.
The show-tunes, show-pianism, of Louis-Philippe’s Paris define Hexaméron, Rossini - ‘Moïse’ (published 1839), Bellini - ‘Norma’ (1841), and Donizetti - ‘Don Pasquale’ (published 1850)—‘documents from the wild and woolly days when pianists were composers and composers were pianists’ (Lewenthal). Verdi - ‘Ernani’ (1849-59), prayerful, was a later manifestation, stylistically developed out of the Weimar kapellmeister years. Hamelin takes us through honey, heroics and heartache, lingering upon a phrase, a cadential turn, a melodic poignancy where once he might have pressed on, voiced tone production at a premium. Roulades glisten. The bass regions (here and there texturally strengthened or re-octaved) glow and caress sensually, the fortissimos thunder with Jovian, unmuddied declamation, all carried by a Ferrari of a Hamburg Steinway with power and more to take on the crowds at Monza, as characterfully equal to the beauties of Don Pasquale or veils and panoplies of Ernani as the cultured artistry and flowers of Moïse, the ‘monster’ stunts and drama of Hexaméron. Produced and engineered by Andrew Keener and Arne Akselberg, this is a ravishing, high octane journey. Réminiscences, dreams, feather every turn—historical, musical, personal. A pianophile’s paradise. Breathtaking.