Reviews for album Liszt: The Art of Remembering

‘The Art of Remembering’ is the intriguing title of Olivia Sham’s multi-layered concept: a sequence of late works she imagines being played by the ageing Abb´as he looks back over his long career, interspersed with assorted earlier pieces. One track often segues into the next, giving the impression of Liszt spontaneously flipping into his back catalogue. Sham plays the late works on a modern Steinway (recorded, I note with admiration, in a single day at Potton Hall), while the earlier fare is divided between an 1845 Erard from the Cobbe Collections and an 1840 Erard at the Royal Academy of Music, Sham’s alma mater and current employer of her keen-eared producer Daniel-Ben Pienaar (no mean pianist himself). The disc should do well for her with its unusual selection of repertoire, which illuminates many of the sides of Liszt’s complex character. Did I mention that Sham is a terrific pianist? She can play the showman, visionary, romancer and charismatic charmer with equal aplomb.

Jeremy Nicholas, Gramophone Magazine (January 2016)

“The pianist imagines an old artist, one Franz Liszt, troubled by that spiritual sickness known as nostalgia. At the piano, he strikes up a waltz – Valse oubliée No 1 – but perturbed by his melancholic mood, the waltz trails off…” Thus begins Olivia Sham’s fantastic journey into the creative soul of Liszt à la Berlioz’s semi-autobiographical text for the Symphonie fantastique.

The Australian-born Sham is currently based in London and has a special interest in 19th-century pianos and their music. She recently completed her PhD on Liszt performance practice at the Royal Academy of Music. Quoting directly from Berlioz and Liszt, her programme note imaginatively links works, from across Liszt’s lengthy career, which she performs on two silvery-toned Érards (1840 and 1845) and a modern Steinway model D.

In a nod to the compositional procedures of both Berlioz and Liszt, Sham uses Liszt’s four Valses oubliées, played on the Steinway, as an idée fixe of sorts, to interrupt the aged Liszt’s reveries which take him back variously to the prodigious youth, the virtuoso “at the height of his prowess”, the iconoclast and the champion of new music.

The earlier works are performed on the Érards, and they are among the highlights of this highly imaginative recital. Sham even manages to evoke Liszt’s suavity and youthful arrogance in her selection of the Etudes d’exécution transcendante  (1851); but it is in the Marche au supplice from Liszt’s 1833 transcription of the Symphonie fantastique where her supple technique and ear for colour and drama come into their own as she elicits waves of oneiric sonorities from the 1840 Érard.

4.5/5 stars, Limelight (February, 2016)

This is the debut recording of pianist Olivia Sham, Australian-born and now resident in London where she recently completed a doctorate at the Royal Academy of Music. The work of Liszt, with its demands on both technique and sensibility is a fairly typical choice for such a disc, but this is different. “Liszt: The Art of Remembering” explores the links between the development of the composer’s music and the development of the nineteenth-century piano. So on this disc three different instruments are used.

Sham performs early works including Etudes d’exécution transcendante and the arrangement of Marche au supplice from Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique on two different Parisian Érard pianos from the 1840s, and late works such as those of tracks 12-17 (see track-listing above), all from the mid-1880s, on a modern Steinway. Apart from that late group, successive tracks quite often switch between different instruments so that one certainly notices the different timbre. With any work performed here on one of the mid-century Érards, and if you are familiar with the music only on a modern instrument, you will find the different colours of the various keyboard registers often illuminating and even poetic. To hear a lyrical piece such as Ricordanza, played on the 1845 instrument here, is to be transported into an 1850s Parisian Salon.

Sham herself contributes a note on the instruments and Liszt’s musical development, although it contains no specific stylistic points in relation to any individual piece or instrument. That would have been valuable and she would have been ideally placed to write it – she is an Honorary Research Fellow at the RAM and performs on instruments from various historical collections in Europe. She writes a quite unusual note on the music selected – one unique in my experience. As a short preface explains this note mimics, sometimes quite closely, Berlioz’s own note on his Symphonie Fantastique. This link to a famously dreamlike work perhaps explains the title of the disc. It is good fun if you take the trouble to look out the Berlioz note as well, but will seem rather odd to those who have never seen that fantastical piece of prose. She manages to do this while also managing to say something valuable about the music, often using Liszt’s own remarks.

All this would be of no consequence if the playing did not do justice to the music but it does, on all three instruments and to music from all the periods. There is no piece that hangs fire, and several that catch fire. That is certainly the case with two of the selections from the transcendental studies, Eroica and Wild Jagd, given with plenty of virtuoso élan when required, but still always musical and sensitive to the colour obtainable from the 1845 instrument. Perhaps some passages make more sense technically on a piano with a lighter action than the modern Steinway – certainly Olivia Sham dispatches many a stormy passage in a way that makes them seem an integral part of the musical discourse. The later works are played here on a modern instrument and so the recorded competition for those is far greater. She at least holds her own in those sometimes elusive works alongside many a better-known pianist.

Unless you are allergic to all early pianos — and there are still some music-lovers who are thus afflicted — there is much to be gained from adding at least one disc like this to your collection.

Roy Westbrook, MusicWeb International (January 2016)

Extracts from concert reviews–

IN THE Cathedral Concert Society’s last concert it was a pleasure to hear a fine Steinway piano (made available through Making Music) which was also used in this splendid recital by the Australian pianist Olivia Sham, making a return visit here.

Currently an Honorary Research Fellow at the Royal Academy of Music, she has made a particular study of Liszt performance practice and this partly informed her choice of programme which she called The Romantic Wanderer.

Schumann’s early Papillons portrayed a series of short, quickly changing dances, concluding with a very effective fade.

Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s lied Der Wanderer began with some dark rumbling, becoming lighter and more positive as it developed, moving straight into Schubert’s own Fantasie in C on the same piece.

This was full of contrasts, triumphant at first, then sombre and resigned, stirring again followed by some extremely delicate playing, all evidence of Miss Sham’s enviable technique.

The second set consisted entirely of Liszt, starting with a contemplative and intense Il penseroso.

The Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 naturally impressed with its virtuosic side but it was interesting to hear Miss Sham bring out an underlying melancholy before the final gallop.

I particularly enjoyed La notte, one of three funeral odes which was intensely contemplative and wistful which was followed the Mephisto Waltz No. 1 which ended with dancing and merrymaking.

Peter Bevan, Darlington and Stockton Times, review of concert on 9 November 2015


It is absolutely clear that Olivia Sham is a player of very high calibre. She combines a virtuoso technique with a great deal of musicianship and sensitivity and is still only a young player engaged, I believe, in studying for her doctorate at the Royal Academy. As she matures as an artist I am sure she will plumb even greater depths of expression and subtlety. If members have the chance to hear her in the future then I certainly recommend that they should take that opportunity!

It was absolutely fascinating to hear many of the pieces played upon the Erard piano, which was quite a small piano with a most beautiful delicacy and warmth of tone, and to realize that during Liszt’s performing career he would have been playing on pianos such as this (or even earlier ones, of course). This shed a whole new light on Liszt and the Lisztian tradition. We have become so used to hearing Liszt’s music often played thunderously on enormous concert grands that we forget that the music would not have sounded like this under Liszt’s own hands. One has to completely revise one’s view of Liszt as a player and as a composer.

To emphasize this point I might mention that I briefly chatted to a fellow member of the audience afterwards who said that he “normally couldn’t stand this stuff” (i.e. Liszt’s music) but hearing it played on the Erard had opened his ears to much of its beauties and he had thoroughly enjoyed the recital.

Surely there could be no greater tribute to Olivia Sham’s vision in putting this programme together and to her fine playing.

A CD of these performances would be very welcome.

Jim Vincent for the Liszt Society, review of concert on 15 June 2012


Olivia Sham is in the midst of a series of Liszt-centred recitals at the Royal Academy of Music

She has been delving into the relatively uncharted but significant field of performing nineteenth-century piano music on historical instruments, including performances on various nineteenth-century pianos.

The high romanticism represented by Liszt is by no means a central interest of ours (indeed, I came to this event with some trepidation). The experience of hearing some of Liszt’s barn-storming extravaganzas in the RAM’s piano gallery put things in a far better perspective. Olivia Sham moved ‘seamlessly’, piece to piece, between the 1920 Steinway A and their beautiful Erard of 1849 in the foreground (see photo).

She had committed the entire oeuvre to memory, and played with bravura and delicacy, winning over easily the capacity audience, not all Liszt enthusiasts, convincing us that the right historical instruments can help us to get closer to a Liszt ‘sound’ quite different to what is often heard in today’s concerts.

The elegant 4-page programme leaflet, quite a collector’s piece, threw light upon the project as a whole, to be continued with a recital of Late Liszt at RAM on 12 November.

Peter Graham Woolf for Musical Pointers, review of concert 15 June 2012,

Olivia Sham is a specialist on the music of Franz Liszt. With her thrilling performance of the Hungarian Rhapsody no12, with its range of emotions, dynamics and tone, she seemed to capture effortlessly the melody and spirit of Hungary’s gypsy tradition, and master the enormous demands made by the composer.

Peter Dawson for the Sidmouth Herald, review for concert on 20 January 2012

The Liszt was all beautifully performed and certainly demonstrated Olivia
 Sham’s astonishing and powerful technical brilliance. She gave a high stature to the Beethoven, such as made us realise why Beethoven considered it as the slow movement for 
his Op.53 “Waldstein Sonata” (before finally rejecting it on grounds of length).

The Carl Vine Sonata (in two movements) was a fantastic piece of piano writing in 
which he makes heroic demands on the pianist and creates on the keyboard an amazing 
range of sounds and textures, with rhythmic complexities that were impressive simply to
 hear let alone to play.

Olivia’s second half opened with No.11 of Messiaen’s “Vingt regards” and then two
 Debussy Preludes before the final Liszt. All was beautifully done with finger dexterity
, a special feature combined with thoughtful interpretation. She chose appropriate tempi for
 all the pieces in the different styles and showed a tremendously wide dynamic range.

Olivia is a strong-willed individual with decidedly “set” ideas […] She aimed to play the whole programme as 
a continuous essay in sound, interrupted only by the Interval. She generously supplied her own programme notes, which were again a continuous essay. Olivia does not seem to take her audience into account, except in so far as she gives them the finest performances possible. She actually said “Applause is not necessary”. I am afraid this will simply not do! […] It is not a satisfactory approach to drift from one piece to another (by an entirely different composer) without even taking your hands off the keyboard. This is the way she joined together the Messiaen and the Debussy.

Laurie Giles for Sunderland Pianoforte Society, an unintentionally satisfactory review for a recital on 11 October 2011

This young Australian pianist delighted the audience in Kidderminster Library with a cultured display. Her gentle touch as she caressed the keys in the opening Mozart Fantasia showed a great delicacy but she was also able to supply the power and energy when required in the later passages.

In her introduction, she explained that she wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to defy the instrument’s percussive nature and produce a vocal quality. This was amply demonstrated in the following Schubert E flat Impromptu where the individual notes of the outer sections were submerged into waves of sound that closely resembled humming. This contrasted beautifully with the more pointed inner section.

Of course, Schubert was the master of songs as shown in the strong melody of his B flat Impromptu with Olivia turning the piano into the vocalist. The familiar tune was also used for the composer’s Rosamunde.

In transcribing Bellini’s opera Norma for the piano, Franz Liszt threw everything but the kitchen sink at the piano leaving the poor pianist to sort it all out. Fortunately, as a Liszt expert Olivia was more than equal to the challenge and brought the scenes to life with the various arias, duets and choral items clearly recognisable. It was a real tour de force and she must have been grateful that the interval gave her a chance to recover.

Chopin’s Ballades are virtually songs for the piano and there was no one better at writing strong melodies. The Opus 23 requires a fine bel canto style of playing and this was shown before the fiery double octave ending. Four short works – a brief simple Ave Maria and a more ornate Romance by Liszt together with the Variation from Hexameron and a Nocturne by Chopin, followed. Each of these continued the vocal theme and received sympathetic performances.

With her keen understanding of Liszt, it was not surprising that the final work was his Ballade in B minor. Although it has no definite programme, it was easy to understand why it was associated with the story of Hero and Leander. The rumbling bass line suggesting the waves that Leander had to swim through while the calm, peaceful melodies portrayed the love scenes.

There was no doubt that Olivia achieved her objective of making the piano sing and the audience appreciated her efforts. This was the first of the 2011 series of Music From The Gallery and it set a high standard for the rest to match.

A.G.E. for the Kidderminster Shuttle, review for recital on 5 March 2011