Sigismund Thalberg: Concerto in F minor, opus 5
Howard Shelley (piano and conductor)
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Recently, I conducted a mini-poll at an orchestral concert. During the interval, I asked a number of people whether they knew who Johann Peter Pixis was. No one had a clue. I followed up by asking the same question concerning Sigismond Thalberg. Identical outcome except for one concertgoer who wondered if he was a property consultant!
For this reason alone, Howard Shelley’s tireless work in retrieving and recording long-forgotten concertos deserves every encouragement. Certainly, it resuscitates music of an era when pianistic giants roamed the earth. Unlike the dinosaur, however, these piano concertos, courtesy of Shelley’s artistry, have been brought back to pulsing life.
From an authoritative opening statement, Shelley is entirely in command both of keyboard and orchestral accompaniment. And if through some miracle of time-travel, the shade of the composer had hovered over the recording session, I imagine the phantom Herr Pixis would have saluted a job well done.
This is music which in lesser hands, could well descend into drabness or meretricious note-spinning – but not here, performed as it is by a pianist/conductor at the top of his game.
In the slow movement, Shelley’s playing is beautifully expressive – and he romps through the finale, in turn delightfully delicate and robustly emphatic.
Also on disc is the first ever commercial recording of Pixis’ Concertino in E flat. How easily the first movement could come across as a succession of Czerny-like studies – but Shelley, like the pianistic conjuror he is, makes the piece sound very much better than it in fact is.
There’s some fine horn playing in the adagio sostenuto, the piano part given a deeply expressive reading with contrasting moments of rapid fingerwork.
There’s an utterly engaging, jovial and devil-may-care insouciance to the finale.
Pixis, incidentally, was, as well as a composer, a fine pianist. Chopin, in fact, thought so highly of him that he dedicated his Fantasy on Polish Airs to him.
Shelley seems positively to revel in Sigismond Thalberg’s Piano Concerto in F minor, whether in dramatic flourishes or extraordinarily nimble passagework. He does wonders, too, in the adagio which comes across like an exquisitely considered nocturne; it is the high point of the concerto. And in the concluding rondo allegro, Shelley’s astonishingly nimble fingers steer a faultless way across treacherous terrain where even a split second of hesitation could cause a musical crisis.
Not the least of this recording’s many pleasures is the consistently meaningful accompaniment which Shelley coaxes from an in-form Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Its playing is a joy.