thoughtful, emotionally fleet and powerfully recorded
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Johann Peter PIXIS (1788-1874)
Piano Trio No. 1 in E flat 'Grand', op. 75 [28:38]
Piano Trio No. 3 in B minor, op. 95 [25:05]
Trio Concertant No. 1 [11:10]
Leonore Piano Trio
rec. 2016, All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London
Reviewed as lossless download from Hyperion HYPERION CDA68207 [64:54]
Johann Peter PIXIS
Piano Concerto in C, op. 100 (1829) [26:13]
Piano Concertino in E flat, op. 68 (c 1824) [18:17] Sigismond THALBERG (1812-1871)
Piano Concerto in F minor, op. 5 (c 1830) [25:37]
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra/Howard Shelley (piano)
rec. 2011, Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, Australia
Reviewed as lossless download from Hyperion HYPERION CDA67915 [70:07]
Presented with the name Pixis, I would have gone through numerous possible countries of birth before getting to Germany. His family had a strong musical background; his father was taught by Abbé Vogler, his brother by Giovanni Viotti. Johann was obviously a talented pianist, as he and his brother, a violinist, performed around Germany, from when Johann was nine. He lived for much of his professional life in Paris, becoming a close friend of Liszt, before spending the last two decades of his life as a piano teacher in Baden-Baden. As you can see by his dates, he was remarkably long-lived for the time.
A measure of his standing during the Paris years was that when Liszt organised a special concert, called the Hexaméron, Pixis was one of the six pianists invited to perform, along with Chopin, Thalberg, Herz and Czerny. Pixis was also one of the composers to whom Anton Diabelli sent his theme, requesting a variation in return, and of course, to which Beethoven contributed 33.
The piano trios disc is a brand new recording, the concertos not so, being Volume 58 of Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concertos series, which somehow missed being reviewed on this site when it was released in 2012. Beyond these two, there are only a few recordings of his music: an oboe sonata and his Diabelli variation.
In the same year as the Hexaméron concert, Liszt also organised a concert featuring trios by Pixis and Beethoven. The story goes that the two works were performed in the opposite order to the programme, and the audience applauded the Pixis work wildly, believing it to be the Beethoven, and became restless and bored during the real Beethoven. This sounds like an early urban myth to me, but it is sufficiently accepted to have been included in the Hyperion notes.
The reason for the subtitle Grand for Trio No. 1 is not clear, but it is a substantial work, with a feel of some of the earlier Beethoven trios, though I have no idea whether Pixis would have known them. Hummel was a good friend of Pixis, and the Grand Trio was dedicated to him, but these trios are better than Hummel’s, and are written with a more even share of the work between the three instruments. They are seemingly both works of his maturity – Trio No. 3 is thought to have been written in the late 1820s - and have charms aplenty. The Scherzo and Trio from the B minor is exceptional – a real discovery – and the slow opening to the finale of Trio No. 1 gives it a quite unusual feel.
The Trio Concertant is based on themes from an opera by Georges Onslow, and was written in collaboration with violinist and cellist brothers Anton and Max Bohrer. It isn’t mentioned in the notes whether the three played the work, but it seems a reasonable assumption. It is a lightweight piece that fortunately doesn’t outstay its welcome.
If, as seems likely, these are the first and only recordings of these works, we should be grateful that they are so good. The Leonore Trio, whose forté would seem to be the unsung trio repertoire, are as at home here as they were with their earlier recordings of Romantic fare such as Lalo, Arensky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Pixis wrote seven trios (not including the Concertant), and checking on IMSLP, their scores exist, so I can only hope this is a sufficiently successful release to allow Hyperion and the Leonores to bring us the rest.
The two Pixis concertos do owe much to Hummel, with again a dash of early Beethoven, but that’s not to say they are just pallid copies – there is plenty of lovely writing that is Pixis alone. I shall return to the first two movements of the concerto frequently – the Adagio cantabile is quite beautiful and all too brief – but the Rondo finale is the usual lightweight showpiece of the era. The Concertino exhibits similar characteristics, and I do like its finale more than that of the concerto.
Sigismond Thalberg is from the generation following Pixis, and his inclusion on this disc is not just a matter of filling some of the empty space, but because he was a student of Pixis in Paris. Thalberg’s name has survived a little better down the years, though that may be due in most part to his involvement in a piano “duel” with Liszt. The politic verdict given by the hostess, Princess Belgiojoso, was that Thalberg was the greatest pianist in the world, but that there was only one Liszt.
His Concerto was written whilst still in his teens, and while the notes suggest it is reminiscent of Hummel and Weber, it strikes me as more dramatic and intense, though still mainly about showing off pianistic skills. That intention is reinforced by the observation that the two fast and showy outer movements occupy almost 90% of the playing time. There are plenty of these “style over substance” concertos from this era: this is no better or worse than most, but not really my thing.
Howard Shelley has made his name with this type of repertoire, and I think this disc may be the best I have heard of his. Obviously, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, his partner in so many of these discs, gets some financial reward for their involvement, but it must be quite a challenge for the players to learn so many new works that they will probably never perform live. Without their lively and committed playing, these works would not shine as they aren’t top drawer. That said, they are definitely worthy of your attention. Production values for both releases are the usual high standard for this label.
Pixis is another of those now forgotten composers who were household names during their lifetime – Hyperion has done sterling work in bringing him to our attention.
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