A trip to the opera, on the piano: Vanessa Benelli Mosell

A trip to the opera, on the piano: Vanessa Benelli Mosell

It is not so often posts are tagged as both "Piano" and "Opera," but that's the case here.  Even rarer in music criticism, I would have thought, for two versions of an operatic transcription  by Sigismond Thalberg to come out in close proximity, but such is the case here, with competition coming on BIS from Paul Wee, whose two-disc box of Thalberg's L'art du chant appliqué au piano, op. 70, has been making so many waves recently.

Vanessa Bonelli Mosell is a pianist and, elsewhere, a conductor. She experienced the opera for the first time aged three (!), a Mussorgsky Boris Godunov in Florence. She then joined the children's choir of the Maggio Musicale, performing under the likes of Bychkov, Chailly and Mehta. So she is returning to opera "through the prism of the piano" as she puts it. Her already wide-ranging discography includes a disc of music for mandolin and piano with Julien Martineau (timely, given Classical Explorer's recent post about Avi Avital's solo mandolin album) as well as a Decca disc of Scriabin and Stockhausen (Klavierstück XII and "Michaels Jugend-Examen" from Donnerstag aus Licht).

We should note, before we embark on our pseudo-operatic journey that Mosell plays on a Fabbrini Steinway (recorded in Prato in August this year) from the Bussotti-Fabbrini collection in Florence; no ordinary piano, then, but a Steinway brought to the peak of its condition by highly specialist piano technicians (Angelo Fabbrini's major showroom is in Pescara. Fabbrini himself was Michelangeli's piano technician and has worked with Pollini for half a century, while boasting a veritable Hall of Fame of pianists among his clientelle).

The art of writing fantasies on themes from opera is most famously associated with Liszt but there are a huge number of others who played the game. This was the perfect way to create showpieces on tunes that many people were familiar with; and we should remember there was no gramophone recording around in those days, so the music had to disseminate somehow, and from parlour to concert hall the piano fit the bill perfectly.

The disc begins with a bang in the 'Largo al factotum" from Rossini's Barbiere di Siviglia in a transcription by the great Grigory Ginsburg; it is indeed riotous and fun. Let's first hear Ginsburg himself, all asparkle:

Rossini/Ginsburg: 'Largo al factotum' from Barbiere

... and now Vanessa Benelli Mosell:

Rossini/Ginsburg: 'Largo al factotum' from Barbiere

... but perhaps it is the sweetness of sound in Bellini's "Casta Diva" from Norma that is most impressive from Mosell. Here she is, with a right-hand legato to die for over a bed of accompanimental deliciousness:

Casta Diva

And here's that comparison: Paul Wee, on the BIS set, lingers just that little bit more there, but I have to say I prefer Mosell's rather more open recording; she is more subtle musically, too.

Nice to meet Liszt's Paraphrase sur Rigoletto, with its focus on Verdi's great quintet "Bella figlia d'amore", Mosell emphasising the lyric flightness excellently. Mind you she does come up against one of the greatest interpreters, Cziffra:

Liszt Rigoletto Paraphrase, Cziffra

... and still acquits herself wih flying colours!:

Liszt Rigoletto Paraphrase

Interesting to see how the different composer/pianists react to the music they work with. Mosell reacts instinctively to the technical challenges of Liszt's Réminiscences de Norma but still manages to hold the interest over its span (at over 17 minutes, the longest piece here). Liszt, it seems, opens up his whole repertoire of devices in decorating themes. The key in any transcription is how the transcriber makes the found material his own, and to have such a spread of responses available to this repertoire is a treat indeed.

Of the famous operatic composers, it is possibly Puccini who has come off worst in the paraphrase tally; but there are two Puccini items from Bohème here, a lovely "Che gelida manina" (Your tiny hand is frozen) and "Quando me'en ve" (When walking along in the streets) in magnificently tender transcriptions by Carlo Carignani. Let's hope he's setting a trend. Fascinating to have a piece from School for the Left Hand (transcriptions) by Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist whose right had was amputated during the First Word War after being shot in the elbow at the Battle of Galicia and who wenton to inspire masterpieces. One also has to wonder how many pieces from this particular source are worthy of discovery. Here it is the so-called "Humming Chorus" (Coro e bocca chiusa) from Madama Butterfly that comes under his pen; and how delicious is Mosell's staccato.

It is also nice to hear Busoni's  "Turandots Frauengemach"; UK readers will know the tune as "Greensleeves"!. This fabulous recital ends in a flurry of familiarity with Rossini's William Tell Overture transcribed by Liszt:

Rossini/Liszt: William Tell Overture