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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Etudes d’exéction transcendante d’après Paganini S 141 (1838 rev 1851)
Tre Sonetti del Petrarca S 161 (1839-46)
Two Legéndes S175 (1863)
Sergio Fiorentino, piano
Recorded Guildford Civic Hall August 1965 (Paganini Etudes) and Petrarch Sonnets 1 and 2 (August 1963); Greenwich Borough Hall January 1962 (remainder)


Things are hotting up in the Fiorentino-Concert Artist/Fidelio stakes. Not content with releasing a long delayed and previously unissued set of the Transcendental Etudes they now continue with the Paganini Etudes and bring the recital to over an hour’s worth of remarkable pianism with the three Petrarch Sonnets and the Two Legéndes. Recording were made in the Greenwich Borough Hall and in the Guildford Civic Hall between 1962 and 1965 and have been digitally remastered to a very good standard. These are never going to be sonically spectacular recordings but to those who value superior musicianship there is a huge amount to admire here, as ever with Fiorentino.

His playing of the Paganini Etudes is broadly consonant with his playing on that earlier disc of the Transcendental Etudes; greatly impressive if on a very slightly less majestic level. I find his structural control and his humanity enormously persuasive. Pyrotechnics are irrelevant for him unless technique and virtuosity are made to serve the curve and dramatic interiority of the score. In the G Minor etude, the tremolo study, his powers of structural concentration are immediately apparent. Comparison with, say, the pre-War recordings of another legendary Lisztian, Claudio Arrau, show that whilst Arrau is abrupt and bursting with tensile strength and quick reflexes, Fiorentino has a deep-rooted control of each Etude’s internal and external dynamic and that his are readings of maturity and depth. His "integrationist" aesthetic is illustrated best in the first study where he refuses to engage in surface glitter, preferring the more lasting benefits of a long line. In the octave study, No 2 in E Flat, he is considerably less overtly theatrical than Arrau and also lighter on his feet, as it were, but this is not to deny him those moments of glittering clarity that so frequently illuminate Fiorentino’s playing. He doesn’t stint the drama but he does make it less barrenly brazen. His quasi-operatic flourishes here are entirely apposite, flecked with an admixture of wit. The third of the Etudes, La Campanella, shows the stunning clarity of his right hand, the trills exquisitely even and "hammered" with poise. His intimacy is a marvel even if I did feel the conclusion rather too dry and unalluring. The E Major Etude receives a reading of excellence, no striving for effect, the weight of hand distribution expertly accomplished. La Chasse lasts 2.41 in Fiorentino’s hands, roughly the same as Arrau but Fiorentino manages to create a greater sense of narrative space; he’s not as rhythmically incursive as Arrau, instead preferring a more mellow, more leisurely sense of the work’s syntax, in terms of its drama. He is less theatrical, less quicksilver, but equally is better at bringing out the flute and horn sonorities of the score. In the Theme and Variations finale one once more sees the essential rightness of Fiorentino’s approach to Liszt, which is one that remained constant throughout his career. His understanding and illumination of structural cohesiveness is second to none; this is never pedantic or, in the worst sense, didactic. Rather it is a constant commentary on and revelation of the spine of the music.

The Petrarch Sonnets were recorded in August 1963. In the first, No 104, one can explore as much as Liszt’s writing, Fiorentino’s own gift of a simplicity born of experience and understanding. In No 47 we can witness the way in which he coalesces the wide variety of moods. When Horowitz recorded it his huge Corinthian columns of bass notes and his visceral, powerful passion engorged the piece with outsize drama. Undeniably thrilling though it was this is simply not Fiorentino’s way; he prefers a more horizontal delineation of the piece, less overtly passionate, seeing it as a structure of semi-classical precision through which animation pulses and grows. So too in the last of the three Sonnets where he mines the music for a remarkable sense of interior life, an ability given to few. The Deux Legéndes date from 1863 and derive from St Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds and St Francis of Paolo walking on the water. Fiorentino thrillingly animates the former, with its colourful and suggestive imitative writing and in the latter derives great layers of nobility and passion from the waves incident and completes this Liszt recital as he began it – with concentration, passion controlled through intellect, virtuosity subsumed to the work’s meaning and characterful understanding.

Once more Humphrey Searle’s notes grace the booklet and once again admirers of this remarkable pianist can investigate his ever-growing legacy with confidence and undimmed admiration.

Jonathan Woolf

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