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The acclaimed Italian pianist Vanessa Benelli Mosell has wide musical interests: her previous albums for Decca have included collections of works by Stockhausen, Scriabin, Debussy and contemporary composers, as well as more standard repertoire, much of it virtuosic, by the likes of Liszt, Rachmaninov and Ravel.

Her latest CD, Casta Diva, focuses on the world of operatic transcriptions for piano, many of them firmly within the virtuoso tradition. I asked her how she came to make such a disc.

‘First of all I really love opera. I first experienced the world of opera as a child, taking part in big productions of Bohème, Carmen and Turandot as a member of a children’s choir. In a way this was my introduction to professional music.’

At the time she was already playing the piano as well as the violin, ‘but course I was just five years old, so I wasn’t making a job out of it. But with the choir we were already working on big productions, on big stages and with big orchestras, so I really started to love opera from the inside’.

Now, she explains, every time there is a great production in Paris – where she now lives – she wants to be there. ‘I’m an opera lover inside out. That’s why a project that could combine my love for opera with my own instrument was fascinating for me.’

Due to her Italian origins, she feels that Italian opera particularly represents her, ‘because Italian opera actually represents everybody. It can tell stories about us and is essentially popular. Some of the characters are from the aristocracy, of course, but many of them are from the popular tradition, for example in The Barber of Seville or Rigoletto’.

How did she choose the individual pieces on the disc? ‘I already knew some of them which are famous in the piano repertoire: Liszt’s Paraphrase de concert sur Rigoletto or Réminiscences de Norma, for example.’

She also did a lot of research, making a list of all the Italian opera transcriptions then selecting the ones written best for her instrument. ‘I wanted to include some rarities that would be interesting for people to discover too. Liszt’s transcription of Lucia di Lammermoor, for instance, is not often played.’

Another of her discoveries is a beautiful but unknown arrangement of the Humming Chorus from Madama Butterfly, scored for lefthand alone by Paul Wittgenstein: the great pianist had lost his right arm during the first world war. She also unearthed a ‘brilliant’ transcription of ‘Largo al factotum’ from The Barber of Seville by Grigory Ginzburg, an important pianist from the Soviet Union though little known today.

Also new to many listeners will be two Puccini arrangements by Carlo Carignani, both from La Bohème. ‘For me what is impressive about these pieces is the purity of the writing and its fidelity to the original score. Carignani had been a schoolmate of Puccini’s, so he knew him for a long time. When Puccini became famous, Carignani was still at his side and he transcribed Puccini’s operas.’ (You will find his name as arranger on many of the published vocal scores.)

These two Puccini examples are outside the virtuosic tradition, because, says Benelli Mosell, ‘I wanted to include something simple that maybe amateurs can play’. On the other hand, many of the transcriptions she has selected – especially those by Liszt and Thalberg – are extremely virtuosic.

‘Thalberg and Liszt were virtuosi and often rivals. In this album I feature transcriptions by Liszt – Rigoletto, Lucia, Guillaume Tell, Norma – which are very brilliant and virtuosic. The two Bellini transcriptions by Thalberg are virtuosic in another way because you have to make the piano sing, which is challenging as it is a percussive instrument. What I love about the Thalberg pieces is the beauty and the sweetness of the singing line, which is very seductive.’

While she enthuses about every piece on the disc, in some ways Liszt’s Réminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor is particularly dear to her. ‘Of course Donizetti’s thematic material is already great, but what Liszt makes of it, the way he plays with the harmony, he transforms it in such a way that it becomes a little bit Wagnerian and a real masterpiece. He wants to emphasise his own feelings about this story and his own dramatic style.’

There is another character in the album, she insists, and that is the piano itself. ‘It is in the piano’s nature to have grand ambitions. In its omnipotence it wants to embrace the orchestra, and in this case also the voice, too. The richness of the sound of a piano assimilating the repertoire of voices and orchestra is one of the things about this project that excited me most.’

George Hall Read the full review on Agora Classica

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