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Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, June 2011

Ever since I heard American pianist William Wolfram’s Liszt/Donizetti disc I’ve been looking forward to more from this arresting virtuoso. Naxos must be pleased with the progress of this series, which has garnered such positive comments here and elsewhere. And just seconds into this Bellini album I was sure this was going to be something rather special. That same commanding keyboard presence and a fine recording—what more could one possibly want?

As Keith Anderson’s excellent liner-notes remind us, operatic paraphrases, fantasies and transcriptions were the virtuoso’s stock-in-trade. Liszt had few peers in this field, as his coruscating take on Bellini’s celebrated sleep-walker amply confirms. Artful as ever, he weaves disparate threads from the opera into a thrilling tapestry, full of drama and high contrast. After those opening staccati Wolfram goes on to phrase and shade this music with astonishing skill, complex inner details laid bare; but that’s not all that Wolfram reveals, for behind the more extrovert gestures are quiet, reflective moments essayed with grace and sensitivity. That said, it’s the free-flowing rhythms that really impress; indeed, one senses Wolfram has unwavering sight of Liszt’s longer spans, which gives his performance a wonderful, inexorable logic and shape.

Norma is Bellini’s most enduring and accomplished opera, as anyone who knows the Callas and Sutherland recordings will surely testify; and for those who like to see their opera as well there’s a DVD of Caballé’s formidable priestess, filmed at a wind-swept outdoor performance in Provence. As for Norma, hers is a classic operatic dilemma of private needs and public duties, a dichotomy that Liszt captures so well in this epic synthesis; the inner—and inward—voices are beautifully articulated, Wolfram purposeful in the valleys and surefooted on the peaks. After that final peroration all that’s missing is the roar of an appreciative audience. A thrilling performance all round.

If anything, the remaining pieces, based on Bellini’s I Puritani, are more overtly dramatic, Wolfram colouring the music with great care; indeed, it’s a mark of his skill that he does so without mannerism or artifice. Again it’s that supple, unbroken sense of rhythm that makes the most impact, a powerful well-spring from which Bellini’s melodies flow. But what I admire most about Wolfram is the easy assurance of his playing—especially welcome in such bravura pieces—and his ability to dazzle and yet remain firmly focused on musical structures. A rare talent in an age stuffed with superficial and generally self-regarding keyboard artists.

There’s really nothing to criticise here; the playing is top-notch and the recording is pretty good too. Keith Anderson’s liner-notes are a model of their kind, and one I wish more labels would emulate. Yes, the music is paramount but for me a well-written and presented booklet is not an after-thought but a perfect and necessary complement to great music-making.

James Harrington
American Record Guide, November 2010

I really enjoy this genre of piano music. No composer has ever topped or even equaled Liszt in the inventive virtuosic treatments of operatic music (with the possible exception of Earl Wild’s Porgy and Bess Fantasy). Generally, this music should make you smile, even chuckle when Liszt finds one more, even further over-the-top treatment of a given tune or combination of tunes. Can anyone else find this many ways to extend a cadence or transitional modulatory passage? I listened to the Concert Fantasy on La Sonnambula with my wife, who has sung the role of Amina. She is not always appreciative of the quantity of piano music I listen to, but this one was clearly a lot of fun for her. Wolfram’s playing had as much to do with the enjoyment as Liszt’s treatment of Sonnambula. These kinds of piano pieces can be deadly in the wrong hands. A practically limitless technique is the first requisite. Next is a good sensibility for bel canto opera, both in its soaring lyricism and for its stylized elements. The pianist must strike the appropriate balance between playing beautiful, usually well-known melodies, extravagant show-off virtuosity, and at least a little poking fun at the excesses often heard in the opera houses of the day. Impromptu vocal embellishments and even ad lib cadenzas were regular fare, expected of all the great singers of the time. Liszt simply made the style work, quite effectively, at the piano.

Hexameron is a set of variations on a march from I Puritani, commissioned by one Princess Belgiojoso from six of the leading pianists of the day. To Liszt fell the job of organizing everything. The introduction and statement of the theme are Liszt’s, as are connecting material between the variations and the spirited finale. Along the way we hear variations by Thalberg, Liszt, Pixis, Herz, Czerny, and Chopin. The work was not ready for its intended premiere, but did manage to become a staple of Liszt’s concert repertoire. It was even sketched for a piano and orchestra version, which Leslie Howard completed and recorded (Hyperion 67401, Mar/Apr 1999). There is no better place to include it in Naxos’s Liszt series (this is Volume 31) than with the other Bellini opera reminiscences. This superb disc is Wolfram’s third in the Naxos series (I also enjoyed his Vol. 27—Donizetti Operatic Transcriptions, Naxos 570137) and one can only look forward to many, many more in the series.

John Sheppard
MusicWeb International, September 2010

A large part of Liszt’s very large output consisted of transcriptions of or works based on the music of others. The present disc contains only four pieces, each around a quarter of an hour long and each based on music from one of Bellini’s operas rather than a transcription of that music. Bellini was only ten years older than Liszt and his operas, especially the three represented here, were very popular in Paris in the 1830s. The first three works on this disc each makes use of several extracts from the opera in question, all commented on and embellished in a fantastical way with every kind of keyboard device imaginable by a composer with a seemingly unlimited stock of such devices. To be able to play any of them at all requires formidable virtuosity; to play them well requires, in addition, musicianship of the highest order.

William Wolfram is an American pianist whose playing I have not encountered before. He certainly has the measure of the music’s technical difficulties...the Réminiscences de “Norma”...shows a vein of poetry and theatre...certainly the highlight of the disc for me, and I have played it repeatedly...The final work is that great display piece, the Hexaméron, based on the baritone/bass duet “Suoni le tromba” from “I Puritani”. This originates from a charity event in Paris in 1837 when the Princess Belgiojoso invited the six most outstanding pianists in that city each to write a variation on this melody. In the event it was not completed in time, but Liszt took the variations by the other composers—Sigismund Thalberg, Johann Pixis, Henri Herz, Carl Czerny and Frédéric Chopin—and turned them into a concert work by adding his own introduction, a piano version of the theme, a variation, various transitions and a finale. The result is an exhilarating piece although, unsurprisingly given that he was able to dictate their context, Liszt is easily able to trump the results of four of the other composers, making their work seem charming but trite by comparison. The exception is Chopin whose very beautiful slow variation after the manner of a Nocturne almost steals the show.

The difficulties of the work are enormous and it is greatly to his credit that William Wolfram is able to play it so convincingly and with such control. This too I enjoyed...The disc is well filled, well arranged and has good notes, and if you are collecting the whole of the Naxos Liszt series there is every reason to add this too.

Robert Cummings
Classical Net, September 2010

This massive Naxos project to record all of Liszt’s piano music marches on with Volume 31. The pianist here William Wolfram, who has appeared on two previous discs in the series (Volumes 20 & 27), is a virtuoso with all the technique and interpretive acumen necessary to tackle these generally difficult Liszt pieces. Wolfram is a two-time silver medalist in major competitions—the William Kapell (1987, when there was no first prize, thus making him the highest finisher) and Naumberg (1983). He certainly captures the full measure of these fairly light and appealing scores by Liszt.

The Reminiscences de Norma is probably the best known piece here and Wolfram invests the music with much power and glitter, and doesn’t shortchange the lyrical moments here or in the other Liszt/Bellini works. Hexaméron is a composite work, a set of variations in which six composers, including Liszt, wrote variations on a march from Bellini’s opera I Puritani. The march, you might know, comes at the end of the second act. But Liszt wrote considerably more of the work than the others, a group that included Thalberg, Pixis, Herz, Czerny and Chopin. Liszt composed the introduction and statement of the march theme, the second variation, various bridge passages and the Finale. Like the other works here, the piece is light and contains a healthy dose of bravura writing. But because it contains music by such a disparate array of composers, it’s delightfully chameleonic, even though much of it is virtuosic and often carries the spirit, if not the actual voice of Liszt. Here and in the other works Wolfram invests the music with every ounce of commitment with his robust tone, epic sense, seemingly flawless technique and grasp of Liszt’s kaleidoscopic palette. The sound is vivid and powerful and Keith Anderson, as usual, provides enlightening notes. Recommended.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2010

Intended by Liszt to have his audience on their feet applauding the astonishing display of virtuosity that he had just served up, these paraphrases are four long works of music from Bellini’s most popular operas. Hardly profound scores, they packed full of those fiendishly difficulties passages that listeners love, Liszt at times seeming to need a third hand. The two Puritani pieces each last the best part of twenty minutes. The final track, Hexameron, was a work commissioned by Princess Belgiojoso, one of the many women in Liszt’s dissolute life. It was for Liszt to play and was written by six famous composers of the time,  including Liszt. It failed to materialise for the scheduled date, though it was later to form part of his repertoire. This is the thirty-first volume of the complete Liszt piano music, and returns to the American pianist, William Wolfram. He is not so puritanical (pardon the pun) as to not to musically smile at Liszt’s trite moments, but neither is he a flashy pianist looking for cheap thrills, his virtuosity is placed purely at the service of the music. He does not avoid hair-raisingly fast tempos, those lightening runs in La Sonnambula so exact and crystaline. Certainly it is among the finest Liszt CDs in the catalogue, the sound from Toronto’s Glenn Gould studio as good as any piano recording you will hear.

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