Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


WGBH Radio WGBH Radio

Opera Fantasies On A Steinway / Antonio Pompa-baldi

Release Date: 02/05/2021
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30169
Composer:  Roberto Piana Performer:  Antonio Pompa-Baldi Number of Discs: 1

Following up on two well-received Steinway & Sons albums, Napoli and The Rascal and the Sparrow, the collaboration between pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi and composer/pianist Roberto Piana continues with Opera Fantasies on a Steinway. Piana's grand operatic fantasies on two masterpieces, Bizet's Carmen and Puccini's La bohème, are world premiere recordings.

R E V I E W:

One of the difficulties in pinning down what “classical music” means in the 21st century is that composers, in this century as in the latter part of the 20th, refuse to be pinned down. They not only draw on a multitude of influences but also employ forms, structures, instrumentation, and musical design in very different ways and to
Read more very different ends. The well-known 19th-century dispute between the followers of Brahmsian “pure” music and Lisztian “illustrative” music seems very long ago and positively quaint by comparison with the trends (or non-trends) among today’s composers – except that nowadays there is little argument about whether a given approach is or is not entitled to be considered “classical,” and the whole issue of terminology has become something of an academic exercise.

Within this just-about-anything-goes musical culture, composers are quite free to decide what forms to use, what sounds to employ, what structures to embrace, and what approaches to try as they seek an audience for their works. Roberto Piana draws very obviously and very skillfully on a form and approach strongly identified with Liszt – the virtuosic operatic paraphrase/fantasy – in new works written for and performed by Antonio Pompa-Baldi on an excellent Steinway & Sons CD. Liszt was scarcely the sole master of operatic material recast as piano virtuosity: Godowsky, Kalkbrenner, Thalberg and others wrote and played at near-Lisztian levels. And the world première recordings of the two Grand Fantasy compositions by Piana lie firmly in this environment. They are quite extended: the one on La bohème runs nearly half an hour, the one on Carmen only a few minutes less. Both are packed with familiar music – familiar not only to opera lovers but also to listeners who may know little about classical music but may well have heard these tunes in other contexts. And in the case of Carmen, Piana draws quite clearly on previous noteworthy musical fantasies by Sarasate and Waxman. Those, however, focused on the violin, and what Piana does with considerable skill – abetted by some truly marvelous playing by Pompa-Baldi – is to transform the orchestral music of Bizet and Puccini into the kinds of virtuoso showpieces that Liszt himself might have written if he had tackled these operas (Liszt actually knew Bizet and admired his pianism, but by the time of Carmen in 1875, Liszt’s own work had moved into more-contemplative musical regions). What is interesting about these Piana fantasies is that despite their grand scale and their essentially Romantic temperament, they are clearly the work of a composer who knows what harmonies, rhythms and techniques are available in the 21st century, and who is able to make judicious use of some elements that go beyond what Liszt and other 19th-century grandmasters produced. Piana also fully understands the capabilities of a full-scale modern Steinway piano: it is worth pointing out that the piano in its modern form only came into existence during Liszt’s lifetime (and partly because of the demands made by him and other virtuoso players). Pompa-Baldi is an absolutely first-rate advocate of this music: assured, fully engaged in the material, equally able to bring forth themes and figurations from right or left hand or in a combination of both, a whirlwind in fast passages and a sensitively introspective, contemplative interpreter of slower, quieter ones. The warmth and beauty of Puccini are given their full due by both Piana and Pompa-Baldi, and the piquancy and exoticism of Bizet come through equally clearly. Operagoers will relish hearing familiar tunes throughout both these fantasies, expanded and rearranged and varied and combined. But the music also reaches out effectively to listeners who may never have seen either opera – it simply pulls an audience in through its display of beautiful tunes and themes, and their elaboration and highly effective presentation by a pianist who here shows himself to be a 21st-century heir of a grand 19th-century performing tradition.

Read less