Tuesday 7 December 2010

THALBERG-LISZT-CHOPIN Concert / Francesco Nicolosi / Review

NAFA Lee Foundation Theatre
Sunday (5 December 2010)

This review was published by The Straits Times on 7 December 2010.

In 1837, an unusual concert took place in Paris, pitting the pianistic skills of the two leading virtuosos of the time, Franz Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg (above). The contest was adjudged a draw, with Thalberg declared the “first pianist of the world” and Liszt the “only one”. Posterity has however heavily favoured Liszt, with Thalberg a mere footnote in Romantic piano literature.

Thalberg’s legacy lives on, championed by Italian pianist Francesco Nicolosi, who devoted half of his hour-long recital to the Swiss-born phenomenon. His music was mostly transcriptions and fantasies on operatic subjects, including The Art of Songs Applied for the Piano, which involves his transformation of bel canto singing into keyboard textures.

Thus Vincenzo Bellini’s quartet A te o cara from I Puritani and the famous Casta Diva from Norma take on a seamless gloss on the piano. That the flowing melody, lightly ornamented, never leaves the spotlight is a tribute to Thalberg’s writing and Nicolosi’s sensitivity. While cherished memories of Maria Callas are not effaced, a new dimension to these classics is gratefully accepted.

For Thalberg’s Grand Caprice on Bellini’s La Sonnambula, all pretence to modesty is shed as this fantasy equals the most florid of Liszt’s conflations. Heavy chords open and a flourish of sound effects, before the familiar A! Non credea mirarti takes centrestage. The melodic line is passed from right hand to the left, and later shared by both thumbs, a favourite technical device of Thalberg’s to simulate three hands playing simultaneously.

Like Italian opera and life itself, the sublime and the vulgar are happy bedfellows. Its finale is choc-a-block full of interlocking octaves and noisy bravura guaranteed to send audiences into rapture. Nicolosi achieved that quite effortlessly.

Liszt’s transcription and variations of Chopin’s song The Maiden’s Wish was probably the weakest piece on the programme, but nonetheless flashy enough for present company. It was Chopin’s own early Variations Oo Mozart’s La ci darem (Don Giovanni), a sly combination of innovation and virtuosity, that closed the evening on a high.

Nicolosi combined both piano and orchestral parts for a grandstanding finale that included that most Polish of dances, the Polonaise as the apotheosis. His three Mediterranean encores of a Verdi waltz, Granados’s Andaluza and Thalberg’s Tarantella were an added treat. Schumann once exclaimed, “Hats off! A genius!” The modern equivalent would be “IPhones off! That’s wicked!”

This recital was the closing event of the First International Chopin Piano Competition Singapore 2010.

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