A pianist goes to the Opera

Beautiful music from the opera world, impressively transcribed for piano by
Hummel, Liszt, Raff, Thalberg & Smith, performed by the piano soloist Dimitris Anousis.

This album is a collection of famous as well rare, but impressive, virtuosic transcriptions for piano, “Grand Fantaisies de concert”, made by famous pianists-composers of the 19th century such as Hummel, Liszt, Raff, Thalberg & Smith, on well known and popular musical themes from operas by Mozart, Verdi, Bellini, Wagner & Bizet. It’s music from the Operas “Ballo in mashera”, “Le nozze di Figaro”, “Les vêpres siciliennes”, “Rigoletto”, “Norma”, “Traviata”, “The flying Dutchman”, “Carmen”, culminating with the transcendent “Tannhäuser Overture”, one of the most demanding piano transcriptions of the entire repertoire.

The tradition of transcriptions from virtuoso pianists and/or composers continues until today and is an important area of evolution of the pianistic art. Perhaps it’s a kind of “jazz” of classical music, often with indistinct boundaries about “the beginning and the end” of the original composer, the virtuoso pianist-transcriber and the pianist-performer. In any case, this is an extremely interesting repertoire that deserves to be heard and not to fall into historical oblivion. Except of course the versatile interest of this album, historically, synthetically and pianistically, consists of great music that I love! I hope you will enjoy it too as I do!

1. “Un Ballo in Maschera” op.10, Fantaisie brillante (4:53)
Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) / Sydney Smith (1839 – 1889)
For starters, I invite you to a “masquerade” by G. Verdi! The opera was described as the most “operatic” and “Shakespearean” one by Verdi, by mixing dark and light, tragedy and comedy into a love story.

2. Fantasina op.124 on Mozart’s “Non piu andrai” (5:50)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) / Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778 – 1837)
Le Nozze di Figaro Aaach … so that life brings … from the brocaded palaces, dances and loves suddenly may be heading for war! “Non piu andrai, farfallone amoroso” sings Figaro, in “his” “Marriages” by W. A. Mozart, speaking to Cherubino, saying that we can no longer flirt with beautiful ladies, preparing him to be classified in the army.

3. “Sicilienne” op.81 no.1 Air Favori de l’Opera “Les vêpres siciliennes”
G. Verdi (1813-1901) / Joachim Raff (1822-1882)
A “revolutionary” opera, which stands for the melodious music and the poetic dialogues. The case is unfolding in Sicily under French occupation in 1282 and outlines that through tragic conflicts such as between a father and his son and with an enemy – conqueror, a man who loves his country, can be driven at incredible dead ends.

4. “Rigoletto” op.122 Fantaisie brillante
Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) / Sydney Smith (1839 – 1889)
The opera that Verdi had closer to his heart! Another Shakespearean case unfolds through passions, weaknesses, loves, curses and revenge … through beautiful melodies like “Questa o quella”, “La donna è mobile” and “Bella figlia dell’amore”.

5. “Casta Diva”, from op.70 “L’art du chant appliqué au piano” (6:52)
Vincenzo Bellini (1801 – 1835) / Sigismond Thalberg (1812 – 1871)
This album certainly could not have been without a Goddess! From the opera Norma by Bellini, is the prayer of the astray High Priestess Norma to the “Pure Goddess” (Casta Diva). A prayer, which have been praised by the one and only Maria Callas, forever linking her name with this music! (A minimum tribute …).

6. “La Traviata” op.103 Fantaisie brillante (9:00)
Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) / Sydney Smith (1839 – 1889)
Is no other than the “astray” by Verdi, probably the most popular opera of all times. The synopsis is none other, than a paraphrase of the classic, world-renowned drama by A. Dumas “Camille”. A hymn to … without any control pleasures of life that do not come without cost … The eternal Violetta sings “I’ll stay forever free, going from one joy to another, I want my life to be filled with pleasures every day!”.

7. “Ballad” from “The flying Dutchman” S.441 (5:27)
Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) / Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886)
An amazing mythology for a curse that condemned the ship “Flying Dutchman” to sail the seas until the Second Coming and the Power of Love against everything dark …

8. “Tannhäuser” Overture, S.442 (16:29)
Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) / Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886)
The story of the noble knight Tannhäuser who is lying between a world of unbridled morals & physical pleasures and a world of pure Christian love and continence. One of the most demanding transcriptions of the piano repertoire.

9. “Carmen” op.200b Fantaisie de concert sur l’opera de Bizet (12:34)
Georges Bizet (1838 – 1875) / Sydney Smith (1839 – 1889)
The story of the destruction of a single soldier who has fascinated from a passionate gypsy woman. The lives of the impoverished, immorality and lawlessness, and the tragic end of Carmen. Carmen has been praised for the melodies, harmony, atmosphere as well the amazing skill with which Bizet yielded musically the emotions of his characters.

10. “La Danza” Tarantella Napolitana de Rossini op.104 (2:23)
Gioachino Rossini (1792 – 1868) / Sydney Smith (1839 – 1889)
One of the most popular songs of Rossini, the eighth in the collection “Music nights” (Les soirées musicales “(1830 – 1835). Mamma mia, Mamma mia, La la ra la ra la ra la la ra la!!!

The pianists – transcribes

Sydney Smith (1839 – 1889)
Sydney Smith was one of the greatest pianists and composers of the Victorian England. He studied piano with Moscheles, cello with Grützmacher and composition with Rietz. From 1859 he lived in London where he composed and transcribed about 400 works for piano. In addition to his “official” compositions and transcriptions, he also issued several works with the aliases “Paul Beaumont” and “Victor Delacour”. Smith gained a tremendous reputation both as a soloist and as a piano teacher in England, America, Europe and Australia. His celebrity was so great that a fraudster impersonated him for years, until 1872 where the impersonation against him was revealed. His transcriptions of operas were very popular and had a huge commercial success selling thousands of copies. He spent passed the last years of his life with many difficulties, with deaths of some of his children and other members of his family, leaving letting him devastated and destitute. He died on March 3, 1889 and was buried in Kensal in a grave bringing only an anonymous cross … The style of Smith was the subject of much criticism in his time, despite his success, they where accusing him of “maximum effect with minimum difficulty”. Unlike other composers-pianists whose style is characterized by a plethora of superfluous notes disguising a slight content, it should be argued in Smith’s favour that he had the gift of achieving his effects by the most musically economic means. His works may not aspire to the rank of the highest sophistication, but to follow the established fashion of dismissing Smith’s entire output as musical trivia is surely to miss the point. Here we have a composer whose melodies still have the power to delight and amuse, and his works certainly deserve a fresh approach and to be rescued from oblivion.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778 – 1837)
Hummel was an Austrian composer and virtuoso pianist. His music reflects the transition from the Classical to the Romantic musical era. He was born in Pressburg (now Bratislava) in 1778 into a musical family. An infant prodigy, he was taught by Mozart. In his late teens he was a leading virtuoso in Vienna, a rival to his friend Beethoven and mentored by Haydn, whom he succeeded at Esterhaza. He became as famous as his friend and rival Beethoven. His music -in every genre bar the symphony- was enormously popular in Europe, but by the time of his death the dramatic romantic virtuosos, Liszt and Paganini were the vogue. His music became less and less performed until he was a mere name by 1958, when his trumpet concerto was rediscovered. Recordings of some of his works -many scores still languish in museums- now reveal a wonderful, highly accessible, composer from the greatest age of classical music. Hummel’s Serenades and Potpourris, in which he creates works using his arrangements of other composers’ music -typically from operas-, is considered light music from the early 19th century, a rarity to us today, and as always with Hummel, it’s a delight.

Joachim Raff (1822 – 1882)
Raff was a German-Swiss composer, teacher and pianist. He was largely self-taught in music, studying the subject while working as a schoolmaster in Schmerikon, Schwyz and Rapperswil. He sent some of his piano compositions to Felix Mendelssohn who recommended them to Breitkopf & Härtel for publication. They were published in 1844 and received a favourable review in Robert Schumann’s journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which prompted Raff to go to Zürich and take up composition full-time. In 1845, Raff walked to Basel to hear Franz Liszt play the piano. After a period in Stuttgart where he became friends with the conductor Hans von Bülow, he worked as Liszt’s assistant at Weimar from 1850 to 1853. From 1878 he was the first Director of the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt a position he retained until his death in 1882.

Sigismond Thalberg (1812 – 1871)
Sigismond Thalberg was one of the most famous and most successful piano composers of the 19th century. He was born in Pâquis near Geneva, Switzerland, on 8 January 1812 and studied piano (like Sydney Smith) with Ignaz Moscheles. Moscheles, according to a letter to Mendelssohn, had the impression that Thalberg had already reached a level at which no further help would be needed in order for him to become a great artist. His début at the Conservatoire concert was in the Revue et Gazette musicale of 31 January 1836, enthusiastically reviewed by Hector Berlioz. The Ménestrel of 13 March 1836 wrote: “Moscheles, Kalkbrenner, Chopin, Liszt and Herz are and will always be for me great artists, but Thalberg is the creator of a new art which I do not know how to compare to anything that existed before him … Thalberg is not only the premier pianist of the world, he is also an extremely distinguished composer.” During the 1830s and the 1840s his style was a major force in European piano-playing. He was greatly in fashion and was imitated by many others. In 1852, Wilhelm von Lenz wrote: “The piano playing of the present day, to tell the truth, consists only of Thalberg simple, Thalberg amended, and Thalberg exaggerated! Scratch what is written for the piano, and you will find Thalberg”.

Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886)
Liszt’s reputation as the supreme pianist of the 19th century, and possibly of all time, has overshadowed many of his other achievements. It is less well known, for example, that Liszt both championed the music of other composers and transcribed their works for the piano. Among his vast output in this area is the notable transcription of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” Overture. One of Liszt’s first important appearances as a conductor took place in Weimar in February 1849 when he presented Tannhäuser. Just prior to that, starting in late 1848, he wrote this brilliant concert-paraphrase of its Overture, noting that it would find few performers capable of mastering its technical difficulties. For his part, Wagner was delighted with Liszt’s interest in the piece and informed him, with perhaps a touch of flattery, that the transcription “was like a wonderful dream come true”. Liszt’s work (published 1849) follows the original 1845 Overture and differs, therefore, from the revised “Paris” version that is usually performed today.

Dimitris Anousis 

A pianist goes to the opera | Dimitris Anousis | Classical, piano solo, opera |