Liszt’s 200th birthday falls this week on Saturday 22 October, and on Wednesday at Hatchlands in Surrey I’m giving a recital on an 1845 Erard piano signed by Thalberg, his greatest rival. ‘Old Arpeggio’ was the nickname given to Sigismund Thalberg because of a particular feature of his piano writing, which sometimes gave the melody to the thumbs while surrounding them with arpeggios above and below, sounding as if he had three hands.
Thalberg was a fine pianist according to contemporaries Mendelssohn, Hallé and Clara Schumann; even Chopin said that he ‘played excellently’… and Paris divided itself into Thalbergian and Lisztian supporters in 1836. There were inflammatory remarks in the press, rival concerts in the Conservatoire (Thalberg) and the Opéra (Liszt) in March 1837, culminating in a pianistic duel as part of a benefit concert for Italian refugees organised by Princess Belgiojoso in her salon. Although many artists played in the event, it was the contributions by the two pianists which caught the public imagination.
‘Never was Liszt more controlled, more thoughtful, more energetic, more passionate; never has Thalberg played with greater verve and tenderness. Each of them prudently stayed within his harmonic domain, but each used every one of his resources. It was an admirable joust. The most profound silence fell over that noble arena. And finally Liszt and Thalberg were both proclaimed victors by this glittering and intelligent assembly… Thus two victors and no vanquished …’ wrote critic Jules Janin in the Journal des Débats; although the Princess’s verdict was: ‘Thalberg is the first pianist in the world – Liszt is unique.’
The actual instrument was rediscovered in Miami in 2001. Read about it here.