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ClassicsOnline Home » LISZT, F.: Bellini Operas (Liszt Complete Piano Music, Vol. 31)
Operatic reminiscences and fantasies were a necessary part of the repertoire of any 19th-century virtuoso pianist. Liszt excelled in these, often treating the original material in novel ways to reveal new features. Hexaméron, Grandes Variations de Bravoure, comprises an introduction and statement of the March from Bellini’s I puritani (Liszt), with variations by Thalberg, Liszt, Herz, Czerny and Chopin, capped by Liszt’s spirited Finale. With this disc, William Wolfram transports us back to the heyday of the salon and the birth of the modern piano recital.
By Dan Morgan
By James Harrington
American Record Guide
By John Sheppard
Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
Bellini Operatic Reminiscences, Fantasy and Hexaméron
How inventively and strongly he plunges the melodic blooms of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Mercadante into the billowing flood of his music, so that it is at one time clothed with the heavenly grace of Aphrodite, then with the teasing frolicsomeness of murmuring Naiads, then with the sublime gravity of the God that rules the sea, thence proceeding to ever new delights!
– Carlo, Wiener Zeitschrift für Kunst, 7 December, 1839
Born at Raiding, in Hungary, in 1811, the son of Adam Liszt, a steward in the service of Haydn’s former patrons, the Esterházy Princes, Franz Liszt had early encouragement from members of the Hungarian nobility, allowing him in 1822 to go to Vienna, for lessons with Czerny and a famous meeting with Beethoven. From there he moved to Paris, where Cherubini refused him admission to the Conservatoire, as a foreigner. Nevertheless he was able to impress audiences by his performance, now supported by the Erard family, piano manufacturers whose wares he was able to advertise in the concert tours on which he embarked. In 1827 Adam Liszt died, and Franz Liszt was now joined again by his mother in Paris, while using his time to teach, to read and benefit from the intellectual society with which he came into contact. His interest in virtuoso performance was renewed when he heard the great violinist Paganini, whose technical accomplishments he now set out to emulate.
The years that followed brought a series of compositions, including transcriptions of songs and operatic fantasies, part of the stock-in-trade of a virtuoso. Liszt’s relationship with a married woman, the Comtesse Marie d’Agoult, led to his departure from Paris for years of travel abroad, first to Switzerland, then back to Paris, before leaving for Italy, Vienna and Hungary. By 1844 his relationship with his mistress, the mother of his three children, was at an end, but his concert activities continued until 1847, the year in which his association began with Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a Polish heiress, the estranged wife of a Russian prince. The following year he settled with her in Weimar, the city of Goethe, turning his attention now to the development of a newer form of orchestral music, the symphonic poem, and, as always, to the revision and publication of earlier compositions.
It was in 1861, at the age of fifty, that Liszt moved to Rome, following Princess Carolyne, who had settled there a year earlier. Divorce and annulment seemed to have opened the way to their marriage, but they now continued to live in separate apartments in the city. Liszt eventually took minor orders and developed a pattern of life that divided his time between Weimar, where he imparted advice to a younger generation, Rome, where he was able to pursue his religious interests, and Pest, where he returned now as a national hero. He died in 1886 in Bayreuth, where his daughter Cosima, widow of Richard Wagner, lived, more concerned with the continued propagation of her husband’s music.
Operatic transcriptions, arrangements, paraphrases and fantasies were a necessary part of the repertoire of any virtuoso performer. Liszt excelled in these evocations of the opera house, often treating the borrowed thematic material in novel ways that revealed new features. These works number some forty, including compositions based on Meyerbeer, Bellini and Donizetti, and then on Verdi and Wagner. Born in Catania in 1801 and descended from a musician grandfather and father, Vincenzo Bellini studied in Naples, where he had his early successes in 1825 and 1826. This was followed by a commission from La Scala in Milan and a triumphant career that took him to major theatres in Italy, to London, and finally to Paris, where, now second only to Rossini, he spent the final two years of his short life. Bellini was in Paris for the winter seasons between 1833 and 1835 and met leading figures in French society, including the Princess Belgiojoso, at whose salon Liszt became a frequent visitor. The ‘revolutionary Princess’, a fervent supporter of Italian nationalism, had established herself in Paris in the early 1830s and was the centre of a circle that included her reputed lovers LaFayette and Heine, George Sand, Alfred de Musset and Liszt. Bellini’s command of French was limited and he seems to have been happier in the house outside Paris at Puteaux, made available to him by Solomon Levy. Heine left a satirical picture of Bellini as ‘a sigh in dancing pumps’ and the Princess herself suggested that he appeared ‘effeminate, though most elegant’*. Whatever the impression he made on society, where his French malapropisms aroused some amusement, his operas and his command of melody had a marked effect on other composers, on the young Chopin and on Liszt himself.
Bellini’s opera La Sonnambula (The Sleep-Walker) was first staged in Milan in 1831. The opera deals with the misapprehension caused by Amina’s sleep-walking and the jealousy of her betrothed Elvino, when Amina, in her sleep, enters the room of Count Rodolpho in the village inn. Matters are resolved when Amina is seen perilously walking in her sleep, solving the village mystery of a suspected ghost and the allegations of her infidelity. Before her final reconciliation with Elvino she finds the occasion, as she sleeps, for a brief mad scene, from which she is gently wakened by her lover. Liszt’s Fantasy starts with the chorus Osservate! l’uscio è aperto (See, the door is open), as the villagers see Amina, now sleeping on the sofa in the Count’s room. The fantasy continues with the lament of Amina’s betrothed, Elvino, in the second act, Tutto è sciolto (All is finished) and Amina’s final justification, Ah non giunge uman pensiero (Ah human thought cannot contain the happiness that fills me). To this Liszt adds the first act finale quintet Voglia il cielo (May Heaven grant that you never suffer the pain that I feel).
The opera Norma had its first performance at La Scala, Milan, in December 1831. Set in Gaul under Roman occupation, it deals with the conflict between love and duty, when Norma, a Druid priestess, daughter of the Druid leader Oroveso, who has secretly born two children to the Roman pro-consul Pollione, tries to prevent her people rising against Rome. Pollione has transferred his affections to the young Druid priestess Adalgisa, who reveals her disloyalty to Norma and, now understanding the reality of the situation, rejects Pollione. Norma considers killing her sons and then asking Adalgisa to go with Pollione and be a mother to her children in her place. Adalgisa refuses to be disloyal to Norma, but goes to Pollione to recall him to his duty. He will not hear her, and Norma now calls for open revolt. Meanwhile Pollione, attempting to abduct Adalgisa, has been taken prisoner, and will be put to death. Norma offers in his place one who has broken faith with her people, herself. A funeral pyre is erected, which she mounts, joined in her final moments by Pollione. Liszt, in his Réminiscences de Norma, written in 1841, summarises the complex plot in seven passages taken from the opera, opening with the first act Norma viene (Norma comes), as Norma enters, joining the assembled people. This is followed by Oroveso’s earlier exhortation to his people, Ite sul colle (Go to the hills), and Dell’aura tua profetica (From your prophetic inspiration), as the Druids call on their god to inspire Norma. The other themes are taken from the final scene of the opera. Deh! non volerli vittime (Oh let them not be victims), Qual cor tradisti (What heart you betrayed), Padre, tu piangi? (Father, do you weep?), interrupted by the cries of Guerra, guerra (War, war) from earlier in the scene.
Bellini’s last opera I Puritani (The Puritans) was first staged in Paris in January 1835. Elvira, daughter of Lord Walton, Puritan governor of the fortress, is in love with the cavalier Lord Arthur Talbot, but her father wants her to marry Sir Richard Forth, eventually, however, giving in to her wishes. The Queen, imprisoned in the same fortress and under threat of execution, is saved by Lord Arthur, who leads her out under Elvira‘s bridal veil, outwitting Sir Richard, who sees that the woman is not Elvira. She, thinking herself deserted, goes mad. Sir George, her uncle, and Sir Richard resolve to seek revenge for Elvira‘s madness in battle against Lord Arthur, who, in the third act, finds Elvira again, in spite of the danger to himself. Captured, he is about to be executed, when news of Puritan victory brings with it a general pardon. Elvira recovers her sanity and her lover. Liszt’s transcription was written in 1836 and dedicated to Princess Belgiojoso. It is based on elements of the first of the three acts. A fanfare from the guard’s chorus La tromba rimbomba nunzia del dì (The trumpet resounds, announcing the day) sets the scene. Lord Arthur arrives at Lord Walton’s castle, to be betrothed to Elvira, A te, o cara, amor talora (To you, my dear one, beloved). Lord Walton agrees to the match and Elvira expresses her delight in a Polacca, Son vergin vezzosa (I am a pretty girl). Liszt continues with Lord Arthur’s declaration and Elvira’s uncle’s wish, Senza occaso, questa aurora (May this day never be overcast).
In Paris the press had fomented supposed rivalry between Liszt and the virtuoso Sigmond Thalberg. Princess Belgiojoso took advantage of this by persuading both to play at her salon in aid of Italian refugees, a supposed contest in which both were winners, allowing the Princess to declare Thalberg the first pianist in the world, and Liszt unique. For the same charity event she had commissioned sets of variations from six leading pianists on the March from I Puritani. In the event the composite work, Hexaméron, Grande Variations de bravoure, was not ready in time, but later became part of Liszt’s repertoire. The march comes at the end of the second act of the opera, Suoni la tromba (Let the trumpet sound), as the Puritans seek revenge for Lord Arthur’s supposed desertion of Elvira, and was the deliberate choice of the Princess. Liszt wrote the introduction and the statement of the theme. The first variation is by Thalberg, the theme often heard characteristically in a middle voice. This is followed by Liszt’s variation and the de bravoure version by Pixis, to which Liszt adds a transitional Ritornello. The fourth variation is by Herz and marked Legato e grazioso, and the fifth, Vivo e brillante, is a tour de force by Czerny. This is continued by Liszt in an interlude marked Fuocoso molto energico and leading to a final F minor Quasi recitativo. Chopin’s sixth variation, marked Largo, enters another world, linked by Liszt to his own spirited Finale, Molto vivace e quasi prestissimo.
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