I first heard the 33-year-old Italian pianist Vanessa Benelli Mosell a few years back when she released an impressive disc of Debussy on the Decca label. Exploring her catalogue I soon found myself considering her one of the most artistically adventurous and astute artists of her generation.
Her latest disc, Casta Diva, more than confirms that view, and is quite simply one of the most dazzling piano recordings I’ve heard in a while.
So it’s a very easy choice for the first Recording of the Month in 2021…
A night at the opera
Music has always been a part of Benelli Mosell’s life. She began playing the piano at the age of 3, and over the years her studies (first in Italy, later at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, and finally at London’s Royal College of Music) also took in violin, singing, score reading, composition, and conducting.
Benelli Mosell has fond memories of singing in the childrens’ chorus for productions of La Bohème, Turandot and Carmen, and recently told International Piano magazine that,
“I’m an opera lover inside out.”
Following on from an eclectic catalogue that so far already includes recordings of Rachmaninov, Liszt, Ravel, Scriabin, and (to much acclaim, including from the composer himself) Stockhausen, this latest disc is thus the best and most naturally personal of musical progressions.
An enterprising recital of opera transcriptions, with Liszt predictably at its core but also including several rarely heard gems, the disc offers the following enticing programme:
- Rossini: Largo al factorum from Barber of Seville
- Bellini: Casta Diva from Norma
Transcribed: Thalberg, Op.70, IV Série
- Liszt: Paraphrase on Rigoletto
- Chopin: Hexameron, Variation 6 (from Bellini’s I Puritani)
- Liszt: Réminiscences from Norma
- Puccini: Che gelida manina from La Bohème
transcribed: Carlo Carignani
- Busoni: Turandot’s Frauengemach
- Bellini: Quatuor de I Puritani
transcribed: Thalberg, Op.70, I Série
- Liszt: Réminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor
- Puccini: Quando me’n vo’ from La Bohème
transcribed: Carlo Carignani
- Wittgenstein: Sailors’ Chorus from Madame Butterfly
(School for the Left Hand, III)
- Liszt: Finale de l’Ouverture de Guillaume Tell
Rossini, transcribed Liszt
Much of the music here, if not all of it, belongs very firmly in the “virtuoso concert artist” category, and I won’t be attempting any of these pieces in the near future!
But oh my, some of these transcriptions demand a level pianism that seemingly defies gravity and all reason!
From the opening bars of Ginzberg’s delicious Rossini transcription, there’s never a moment of doubt that Benelli Mosell is up to the challenge, and the attention-grabbing clarity of the descending cascades within the first minute already left me, quite frankly, stunned.
But the album is not merely a display of pyrotechnics (although the deft virtuosity of Busoni’s Turandot’s Frauengemach in particular is simply breathtaking); the ensuing title track Casta Diva reveals the deep poetry and next-level musicality that continues to shine brightly throughout this exceptional recital. Every note Benelli Mosell conjures from the Steinway D is tastefully considered, and delivered with a finesse that is too rare even among the most exceptional concert artists.
In the more well-known pieces (such as Liszt’s almost tiring Réminiscences de Norma) she faces stiff competition from more seasoned artists, but in this listener’s view these recordings are never less than equal to the very best.
That said, the most wondrous treasures here are the rarities, and the refreshing lyricism of the Chopin Hexameron, Thalberg’s Quatuor de I Puritani, Wittgenstein’s left-hand only Madam Butterfly arrangement, and Carignani’s ecstatic transcription of Che gelida manina, for me perhaps the most genuinely heart-rending piano playing I have heard in a long time.
Carignani’s rendition of Quando me’n vo’ is in Benelli Mosell’s hands no less ravishing, while the crowd-pleasing William Tell Overture that concludes the recital is a marvel that has left me determined to improve my repeated-note technique!
Recorded in Prato in August 2020 by engineer Simone Bussotti, who also mastered the disc, the piano sound has a clarity throughout which reveals the pianist’s supreme mastery of texture and range of sound.
The CD comes packaged with a generous booklet including an especially in-depth and informative programme note by Rolando Zegna. Exemplary.
Did I mention that I really enjoyed this recording?
So early in the year, but this astonishingly good release has reset the bar extremely high for the months ahead, and is an early but very strong contender for Album of the Year…