> Franz Liszt - recital by Sergio Fiorentino [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Douze Études d’exécution transcendente S139
Sergio Fiorentino, piano
Recorded Conway Hall, London 14 February 1955 and Civic Hall, Guildford 16 February 1966
CONCERT ARTIST CACD 9201-2 [63’04]


I recently reviewed the latest release in APR’s Fiorentino series, a finely controlled and deeply poetic Liszt recital to which I would direct readers interested in this still contentious musician. Concert Artist/Fidelio Recordings, who recorded much of Fiorentino in the 1950s and 1960s and whose devotion to him was notable has now released a sheaf of his recordings, newly remastered, some live, several from newly discovered master tapes, many previously unissued, to increase yet further ones knowledge and experience of the young pianist – he was twenty seven when he set down this set of the awesome Transcendental Etudes.

In fact going through the catalogues I haven’t been able to discover an earlier complete set than this February 1955 traversal – with the caveat that it was never issued at the time. The Etudes were recorded the day after his London debut, at Wigmore Hall, and the masters then sent to America where they were stored and subsequently believed to be lost. I believe that a selection of them, Nos 3, 4, 5, 6, 10 and 11 was announced for issue, on Concert Artist CALP 1062, and is so listed in a supplementary volume of The World’s Encyclopaedia of Recorded Music. Many years later, in 1966 Fiorentino was recording for Concert Artist in Guildford and warmed up with some of the Etudes – these performances were recorded and some patching has been done using these performances to cover the storage damage to the original tapes.

Enough of the background. These are deeply accomplished performances and confirm the pianist, to my ears at least, as a master Lisztian. I noted in my review of the APR disc some of the qualities of his musicianship that I found so impressive; strong technique, textural transparency, a superb and eloquent control of dynamic gradients, a never forced-through tone, a lack of egocentricity – vital in Liszt - faithfulness to the score without becoming in any sense literal minded, aristocracy of phrasing, clarity and poetry existing as prerequisites and a tone of great beauty. Here these qualities are equally audible. In the A Minor Molto Vivace [No 2] he deals with those crashing martellato episodes with sovereign skill, in Paysage there is true nobility of phrasing, evocative and lyrical, with trademark dynamic control. The way he builds up to the climaxes is estimable. Mazeppa, one of a number of the pieces to have taken on independent life – recorded individually too from the 1920s onwards – is another test of Fiorentino’s mettle. The double note ascending run is tightly focused rhythmically in his hands; whereas his soft and pliant phrasing never loses the arc of the line, never loses sight of the architectural inter-relatedness of things. The increasing technical demands bring some storming virtuosity and an admixture of a much-undervalued Fiorentino quality, wit. His conception is not as monumental or frank as, say, Egon Petri’s but survives the comparison handsomely.

Feux follets is a measure of Fiorentino’s controlled virtuosity; the left hand is animated and active but not over-scaled, the tempo is certainly not the hell-for-leather scamper others routinely make of it, dynamics are not of the vertiginous kind drawing attention to the sudden withdrawal of tone, his chordal depth even. A contemporary musician such as Kissin is much quicker and considerably more abrupt, lavishing vigorous accents as he goes. Vision’s arpeggios are powerful and virtuosic but not overnuanced; steady regret is harnessed to relentless power. No bluster or gabble intrudes on Wilde Jagd; instead clarity and definition without any loss of romantic impress are Fiorentino’s birthright. This is certainly not playing of nonchalant abandon, of paraded panache or preening, jaw-dropping technique, rather it’s sensitivity allied to virtuosity and all the better for it. Some might prefer Kissin’s rocket propelled attack or Berman’s legendary traversal; but Fiorentino is a master of true musicianship and makes many other pianists sound gauche and arid by comparison. The ruminative cantilena of Ricordanza brings with it Fiorentino’s quasi-improvisatory freedom and flexibility that serves only to intensify what Busoni famously called "a bundle of faded love letters from a somewhat old fashioned world of sentiment." In the Allegro agitato molto he never becomes brittle or mechanical – but he does become passionately declamatory and in Harmonies du soir, a landscape of touching beauty, he is veiled, not too fast, with its central "sentimental" panel properly related to the outer, both in terms of tempo and mood. How many pianists fail to fuse the movement into a cohesive entity. The final piece, Chasse-neige, a fitting and cataclysmically desolate conclusion brings from Fiorentino an implacable and defining terror, his left hand chromatic flurries dramatic without grotesquerie. Obviously the recording can’t project the sheer terror as well as one could expect today but there’s no doubting Fiorentino’s command of sonority, keyboard and text.

The recording was made at quite a low level but has been expertly remastered; examples of obvious edits, where the 1966 warm ups have been patched, are not noticeable. The documentation is thorough; Humphrey Searle’s notes on the Etudes are reprinted, as is biographical material on Fiorentino himself, who emerges, yet again, as a musician of the highest nobility and stature.

Jonathan Woolf


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