Reviews of Debut Album

‘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 Abbé 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)