With origins dating back to the 18th century, the opera fantasy reached its artistic peak during the 19th in the works of Liszt and Thalberg. In the second half of the century, however, the virtuoso fantasy began to lose ground to waltz paraphrases and opera-based piano music directed towards the lucrative amateur market. By the end of the First World War opera fantasies had decisively fallen from fashion. It wasn’t until the 1960s and ’70s, thanks largely to the efforts of pianists such as Raymond Lewenthal and Earl Wild, that interest in this large and significant corner of the repertory was rekindled.
Andrew Wright has made a special study of the opera fantasy both as a performer and composer, and now follows up his 2014 release ‘The Operatic Pianist’ with a second volume. Wright’s own contributions to the programme include a more or less straightforward transcription of Imogene’s second act aria from Bellini’s Il pirata and a rather more ambitious
paraphrase on the Miserere from Verdi’s Il trovatore. Not as succinct as Liszt’s treatment of the Miserere, Wright encumbers the proceedings with a curiously conspicuous extended trill and, in the manner of Liszt’s Niobe Fantasy, a hailstorm of minor thirds.
In terms of musical and pianistic invention, Alfred Jaëll’s Réminiscences de Norma falls short of the earlier fantasies of both Thalberg and Liszt inspired by the same opera. Leschetizky pads the sextet from Lucia with gratuitous arpeggios, creating a longer if less compelling musical experience. Of greater interest are Thalberg’s Moses Fantasy, one of the pieces he played during the famous Paris ‘duel’ with Liszt at the Princess Belgiojoso’s, and Saint-Saëns’s treatment of Massenet’s Thaïs, titled La mort de Thaïs. Yet in both, one wishes for a greater sense of drama and sweep, the go-for-broke sort of playing this repertory depends on. Wright admirably avoids over-playing and his pedalling is always judicious. On the other hand, his dynamic range seems constrained and, at certain critical moments, he is prone to lose the musical line, that sleight-of-hand with which pianists strive to create the illusion of legato on an instrument essentially incapable of it.