Sunday, December 8, 2013

Thalberg - Piano Concerto In F Minor Opus 5

The European opinion of America's appreciation of the arts was very low for most of the 19th century, and music was no exception. The Director of the Paris Opera House summed up Europe's snobby opinion of America when he said that the country was an industrial country, great for telegraphs and railroads, but not for Art.  The more ambitious European musicians, whether to increase fame or fortune (or both) began touring America early in the century and they met with generally high acclaim. The virtuoso pianist Sigismond Thalberg was one of those artistic adventurers and he toured the country before the Civil War. He landed in New York in 1856 and left the country after his last recital in 1858. Thalberg played 5 or 6 days a week, on some occasions playing two or three concerts a day. He took a few months off after his first tour then began a second. By the time he was through he had played over 320 concerts in 80 American cities and 20 concerts in Canada. In addition he gave many free concerts to thousands of children, as well as playing chamber music with other musicians.

Unlike some other touring musicians Thalberg didn't resort to excessive publicity campaigns or crowd pleasing tricks. He played other composer's works as well as his own, some of which were already known in America. By all accounts he was calm in his demeanor on and off the stage, polite and unassuming in his manner. When Thalberg suddenly canceled the rest of his tour and returned to Europe, The New York Musical Review and Gazette newspaper of July 24, 1858 reported:
Thalberg ... quite unexpectedly closed what has been a most brilliant career - completely successful, musically, giving to the talented and genial artist abundance of both fame and money. There is probably not another virtuoso, whether with instrument or voice (Liszt alone excepted), who could have excited [even a portion] of the enthusiasm, or gathered a fragment of the dollars, which Thalberg has excited and gathered.
Franz Liszt
Indeed, the only rival Thalberg had while he was in his prime was Liszt, and in his younger touring days Liszt was a formidable rival. Liszt eventually was thought of as the paragon of virtuoso pianists, but in the 1830's Thalberg and Liszt were considered equally proficient by many. But there were also many that took sides, some with a vehemence of the most rabid sports fan.  For Thalberg's part, it appears he didn't participate in the shenanigans, but the same cannot be said for Liszt. In any case, the rivalry died down and after eleven years of not seeing Thalberg, Liszt attended a recital and applauded Thalberg's playing.

One of the incentives for Thalberg to embark on his tour of America was the fact that Liszt refused to go overseas. Liszt toured Europe and Russia but never went to America. Thalberg may have been a well-mannered gentleman and all, but it is unimaginable that he could have become such a virtuoso performer without a large ego that needed to be fed, even if he kept it under wraps. Having a huge financial and artistic success in America without Liszt being in the way was food that his ego probably devoured with relish.

Despite an artists success in their lifetime, time is the final arbitrator of where they fall in the history and progress of their art. Thalberg's place is more than a footnote, but not much more than that. His music at one time was admired by Mendelssohn and Berlioz, but most who have ever heard of Thalberg know him as a pianist that played second fiddle to Liszt. That isn't exactly fair, as Thalberg did advance the art of piano playing to the point where Liszt adopted some of those innovations in his own compositions for piano. Thalberg's temperament didn't allow him to climb to the heights of showmanship (or crowd pandering) that Liszt did.

Thalberg's compositions, in their own way, relied on his own particular 'tricks of the trade', and he eventually went out of style in his later years. But the ambitious Liszt may have done his part to hasten that too. Liszt's compositions are now valued much more than Thalberg's, but for many years Liszt was a composer for specialists and devotees of the 'New Music' he represented. It took many years for his music to get the recognition that it deserved, and while Thalberg's music may not be on the same level as Liszt's, some of it is very good and worth at least an occasional hearing.

Thalberg's Piano Concerto in F Minor is, to my ears, worthy of a listen. It is an early work, written around 1830 when he was 18 years old, at a time when virtuoso pianists would play their own concertos in concert.  Chopin composed both of his concertos about this same time and used them for his debut concerts. By the way, Chopin heard Thalberg play in Vienna and while he admitted he played splendidly, he didn't care for his style or his compositions. The Piano Concerto In F minor is in three movements:
I. Allegro moderato -  Thalberg follows the form of the piano concerto of the time as he opens with an orchestra exposition of the two contrasting themes that comprise the first movement. After the orchestra's initial statement the soloist enters and embellishes the themes. These kinds of compositions were written to display the abilities technically and musically of the soloist/composer and Thalberg gave himself plenty of opportunity to show what he was capable of, especially in the cadenza.

II. Adagio - The orchestra plays a short introduction before the piano assumes the spotlight with tender music that slowly unwinds like a nocturne. The orchestra adds a few comments here and there as the piano plays solo for much of this short movement.

III. Rondo : Allegro -  Thalberg follows up the slow movement with a contrasting rondo theme that follows a short introduction by the  piano.. The episodes between repetitions of the theme keep things interesting. The music shifts gears into minor mode after a short cadenza as this delightful work of the young Thalberg comes to an end.

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