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Opera Fantasies On A Steinway / Antonio Pompa-baldi
Steinway & Sons
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Notes and Reviews
Following up on two well-received Steinway & Sons albums,
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 S:
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 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.
A new release from Steinway & Sons, Opera Fantasies on a Steinway, features world premiere recordings of two works by the contemporary pianist and composer Roberto Piana (b. 1971), commissioned and performed by Antonio Pompa-Baldi. In the liner notes concerning his Grand Fantasies on Puccini's La bohème and Bizet's Carmen, Piana acknowledges and celebrates the great tradition of a genre that flourished in the 19th century, exemplified by the works of Franz Liszt. Piana insists that although the creation of such pieces is a rare occurrence today, "I am convinced that Fantasies can still be laboratories for the most probing research in the field of music elabortion." Piana chose to create Fantasies on works by Puccini and Bizet "that, inexplicably, have inspired very few elaborations for the piano." (Of course, Pablo de Sarasate and Franz Waxman did have something to say about Carmen, much to the delight of virtuoso violinists.) Piana's artistic goals in these operatic Fantasies manifest in a "blueprint": "I tried to respect the Operas' dramaturgy, espoused to my personal tendency to create a discourse unfolding in the most natural and consequential way possible. The writing is naturally indebted to the great virtuosic tradition of the 19th Century, but hopefully, I succeeded in avoiding clichés in pursuit of a more individual style." For the most part, the two Fantasies track the operas' respective dramatic structures and progression. This is particularly true for the La bohème Fantasy. The hustle and bustle of the Bohemians' act I horseplay yields to a portion of Rodolfo's "Che gelida manina," and a far greater exploration of Mimì's ensuing aria. A reprise of the Bohemians' music morphs into the lively opening of the act II Café Momus scene. There is a bit of the playful exchange between Rodolfo and Mimì, followed by Musetta's Waltz. The music of act III includes the somber introduction, and the exchange between Mimì and Rodolfo in which they vow to stay together until spring. Moving to act IV, Colline's aria "Vecchia zimarra" is given an expanded treatment, both in terms of time span, and in dynamics at the music's climactic moment. The final encounter between Mimì and Rodolfo, culminating in the former's death, brings the fantasy to a hushed, mournful close. Piana demonstrates great affection for Puccini's glorious vocal lines, and he gives the pianist many opportunities to assume the role of a great operatic artist. Piana also embraces the influence of French Impressionism in Puccini's 1896 score, perhaps most strikingly in the act III introduction. Overall, Piana's emphasis is, as he stated in the liner notes, "to respect (La bohème's) dramaturgy." In his Bohème Fantasy, Piana does suggest the aching humanity of Puccini's opera. And while there are certainly virtuoso moments in the work, they never overwhelm, or even distract from the narrative. Piana's Carmen Fantasy is, compared to his take on Bohème, more (if I may) fantastical. Here, Bizet's music is given a freer and more fanciful treatment than is the case with Puccini's score. The familiar moments emerge from the mists of snippets and cross-references of Bizet's thematic material. Carmen's various solos are represented, as is a bit of Don José's Flower Song. As in the case of Colline's "Vecchia zimarra" in La bohème, Micäela's act III solo from Carmen, "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante," is given a pride of place beyond that in the opera itself. These beautiful and heartfelt statements by supporting characters possess the substance to support that treatment. The fatal Carmen-Don José confrontation that concludes the opera takes a backstage to brilliant piano writing that focuses upon the act IV orchestral introduction, and a collage of various themes from throughout Carmen. All told, the Carmen Fantasy is a quite different experience than its Bohème counterpart, but one that I found equally effective and entertaining. Antonio Pompa-Baldi successfully negotiates Piana's bridge between virtuoso display and the operas' compelling narratives. His performances are notable for their sterling technique, beautiful tone, and sensitivity of phrasing. Throughout, Pompa-Baldi reminds us of the profound connection between grand singing and great instrumental performance. The recording, made at Steinway Hall in NYC in November of 2019, and May 2020, is marvelous; rich, detailed, and suggesting a prime seat in an intimate concert hall. Each fantasy is accorded a single track on the disc. In addition to Piana's notes (translated by Pompa-Baldi), there are artist bios. Recommended enthusiastically to those who love the grand tradition of operatic fantasies, as well as fans of Puccini and Bizet's original masterpieces.
Grand Fantasy on Puccini's "La Bohčme"
Antonio Pompa-Baldi (Piano)
Date of Recording:
Steinway Hall, New York City
25 Minutes 38 Secs.
Grand Fantasy on Bizet's "Carmen"
Date of Recording:
Steinway Hall, New York City
25 Minutes 38 Secs.
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