We always like this kind of CD — transcriptions of more complex works for either travelling performers or good amateurs to play. It’s comforting to know that even the great composers had to earn a crust and deliver work that could be played by amateurs, a bit like finding the drummer with a named band earns a crust doing tuition between tours.
In this case the works are transcriptions and paraphrases, which we guess is the 19th century equivalent of those Stars On 45 hits, where they mixed all the best bits up from well-known songs. A tad classier than Jive Bunny, admittedly.
This might have been the only way many people would hear great music. The sleeve notes say that in the age of the travelling virtuoso before the gramophone, these pieces allowed familiar tunes to be heard without the cost of a night at the opera.
The most significant contributors to this repertoire were Franz Liszt and Sigismund Thalberg, and clearly posterity has only been kind to one of those. In this spirit, the CD pays tribute to the lesser as well as the better-known names: Alfred Jaëll, Theodore Leschetizky and Herr Thalberg mingle with Liszt, Wagner and Saint-Saëns.
If it has a drawback (and it’s hard to really be critical on something this good), it’s that the styles range considerably, from the gentle and calming to the highly ornate, fiendishly complex. Like a modern greatest hits package, it wasn’t written to be one piece of work.
On the other hand, and this is a big plus, if you’re not too keen on opera, you get all the best bits without that caterwauling from men with beards. The playing is superb; even a non-pianist can tell that in places Wright is playing at world-class levels.
Not only is Mr Wright a top pianist, he is responsible for gathering this material: after deciding that there were many hidden gems out there, he studied the minor figures of 19th century and early 20th century piano history, which led to The Operatic Pianist, a kind of Now That’s What I call Piano Vol 1, which one review said was a “Himalayan challenge” to Wright, but (mixing climates, never mind metaphors) that he failed to wilt. This CD is the follow-up.
Christmas is coming; this might be a good gift for both piano and opera buffs.