A rival of Liszt, Thalberg is generally known today for the scintillating pianistic fireworks of his operatic fantasies and paraphrases. A different kind of pianism is required, though, for his 24 renditions of vocal favourites in L’art du chant appliqué au piano (1853-63). Tone and touch are paramount, as Thalberg faithfully conveys the originals with an artistry far beyond that normally associated with transcription, managing to evoke a human voice accompanied by orchestra or piano.
That many of the pieces are within the capabilities of dedicated amateurs may explain why this delightful survey of mid-19th-century singing has largely disappeared from the pianistic repertoire. Three cheers, then, for Paul Wee who, having previously established his dazzling virtuosity in Alkan, now presents Thalberg’s entire set in delectably appealing performances. Wee effortlessly conveys Thalberg’s periodic illusion, as in Meyerbeer’s ‘Nel silenzio fra l’orror’, that three or four hands are involved. Whether in Bellini, Donizetti, Gretry, Mercadante, Mozart or Weber, Wee’s richly evocative playing perfectly captures the spirit of each role. Not that L’art du chant consists only of operatic bonbons. ‘Sull’aria’ from The Marriage of Figaro is preceded by an extraordinarily vivid transcription of the ‘Lacrimosa’ from Mozart’s Requiem. Thalberg also draws on lieder, Wee’s gradations of texture for Schubert’s ‘Der Müller und der Bach’ being sublime. With a handful of Thalberg’s other arrangements as a welcome bonus and gorgeous recorded sound, this is one to cherish.