Sigismond Thalberg: Piano Concerto in Fm, op. 5

performed by Francesco Nicolosi and the Razumovsky Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Mogrelia

Sigismond Thalberg was born 8 January, 1812 in Pâquis, near Geneva, in Switzerland. His Wikipedia page states that “according to legend,” he was the illegitimate son of a prince and a baroness, but his birth certificate still lists him as son of Joseph Thalberg and Fortunée Stein, both originally from Frankfurt-am-Main.

Th re very little known, apparently, or at least with any degree of accuracy, about Thalberg’s childhood. Wikipedia say s “it is possible” that he arrived in Vienna, with his mother, at the age of ten, which is the same year and age that Franz Liszt arrived there, making me less inclined to believe this tidbit, but it would be an interesting little coincidence. Based on the composer’s account, he attended the premiere of Beethoven’s ninth symphony on May 7, 1824.

We don’t know who he studied with until he began under Ignaz Moscheles in London in 1826, but according to a letter from Moscheles to Mendelssohn a decade later, he felt the young Thalberg didn’t have much to learn from him, and was surely capable of becoming a great artist. He performed in some concerts in London, and subsequently Vienna, where he performed concertos by both Hummel (someone we should talk about eventually!) and Beethoven.

In 1830, Thalberg had the privelege of meeting Mendelssohn and Chopin in Vienna, and we have evidence from letters that suggest they were very impressed with his technical ability. That same year, Clara Wieck, later to become Schumann, heard him perform the work we will discuss today, and was also impressed with his skill. She was only ten at the time, but had the chance to play for him as well, and famously went on to become a very accomplished pianist herself.

While Thalberg composed no symphonies, sonatas, string quartets, or any other concertos, he did put out two operas, some vocal work, and 83 published opus numbers, among more unnumbered work, and with this volume, it’s surprising his work isn’t  better known, especially considering the beauty of this concerto.

It was completed in 1830, the same year Clara heard it performed, which may have been the premiere.

The work has an operatic, German, full-bodied mature-sounding opening, so we may be surprised to realize that at the completion of this work, the composer was only still (barely) in his teens. I find it, from the beginning, infinitely more interesting and exciting than another Fm concerto that dates from 1830, the second Chopin concerto, completed in 1829, but not premiered until 1830. I have shared my distaste for Chopin’s piano concertos before, and that’s not the purpose of this article, except to say that Thalberg blows his contemporary out of the water, in my opinion. (We’ll be talking about another of his contemporaries in just a few days!) It’s intensely engaging, melodic and satisfying, but also of a serious nature, in a way.

Jeremy Nicholas at Hyperion notes that “after the orchestral statement of the two principal themes, there are just twenty-two bars of the first movement (Allegro maestoso) in which the pianist’s hands are not engaged with the keyboard.” Wow! This first movement offers so much that I think any listener would find refreshing, enjoyable, and perhaps surprisingly familiar, even though we’ve never heard it. That is to say, it’s clearly of the idiom of the period, but uniquely unique! Both the orchestral and solo parts are extravagant and showy, and the cadenza(-like?) passages are immensely wonderful.

Nicholas calls the second movement “the least impressive of the three,” but even it doesn’t offer much rest for the pianist. It’s very short, almost like an aria for the piano once it gets its introduction, and for people who like what Chopin they know but don’t really know Chopin, it could be easy to think this was Chopin, except, again, it’s not nearly as boring as his concertos. I say ‘aria’ because this entire piece has a kind of operatic flair to it, but in some senses, maybe it’s more an intermezzo. I could be wrong, but I hear whispers of the previous movement in just one or two places, I think… but before we have much time to get bored or too attached, we hear horn calls, almost heralding the end of the piano’s little soliloquy, and the movement ends the way it began.

The final movement is a spectacle. Nicholas says of this movement’s two themes, one in the minor, another in major, that “Like a juggler, Thalberg keeps them both in the air, putting them through any number of transformations until the dashing coda…” If you hadn’t already come to this conclusion, this movement solidifies the argument that Thalberg was not just a first-class virtuoso pianist, nor just a great composer, but also a dramatist, even a storyteller. The piece turns on a dime between these two contrasting ideas, and the finale is of such interest, of such satisfying narrative, that finishing this piece, for the audience, to say nothing of the pianist, is like rolling back into the starting point after a roller coaster, hair tousled, blood pumping, big smile… and at least as a listener, I feel like saying “Let’s go again!”

All in all, this piece is immediately and deeply satisfying in so many ways. It’s a Romantic piano concerto, as Romantic as there ever was, so the style, the genre, the format, are familiar to listeners already; Thalberg is speaking a language we already know. It’s very German sounding, but full of theatrics both emotionally and technically. In short, it has all the things that make a wonderful concerto a wonderful concerto, with the added benefit of likely being entirely new to many listeners!

I just can’t tell you how deeply satisfying this work is, and in that way, there’s something almost Beethovenian about it, the feeling that I could listen now, tomorrow, a week later, and in another few weeks, and even in between, with some regularity, and still be finding things about the work to enjoy. It has depth and charm in spades, a richly rewarding work without an ounce of challenge. All of that leaves me wondering how this isn’t one of the tried-and-true concertos in the repertoire, but then again, most of the concertos we’ll be talking about for these few weeks are not pillars of the repertoire. The Beethoven from earlier in the week is, for sure, and you’ll recognize these composers’ names, no doubt, but they won’t all be concert hall regulars, even if this one should be.

But that’s pretty typical of the stuff I share. I feel like the articles I write about pieces from Beethoven or Mozart, Schubert or Brahms, that these are articles for me. There is no shortage of fantastic articles on pieces from these masters, and I’m fairly certain I haven’t reached anything near the level of celebrity that would make my specific, individual opinion on these timeless works of interest to my readers. I’ll still be going through them, and writing, not only as homework projects for myself, but in hopes that maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to strike on some kind of simple yet informative approach that just maybe hasn’t already been presented before, and that just maybe the person who is looking for this information will find me on The Google, or through Facebook or wherever else I post things.

Anyway, I love this piece and I hope you do too. Stay tuned for more piano stuff, and chamber stuff, and other stuff, this month and into exciting things in July. Thank you so much for reading.

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One thought on “Sigismond Thalberg: Piano Concerto in Fm, op. 5

  1. Nicolosi is a great pianist, the Thalberg concerto is quite good, I’m not such a big fan of Chopin’s concerti. But I prefer Hummel’s concerti.

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