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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Melodies (Hungarian Fantasia) S.123, R.454 (c. 1852) (based on Hungarian Rhapsody No.14 in F minor for solo piano, S.244) [14:07]
Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat major, S.124, R.455, (1830-49, rev. 1853, 1856) [17:55]
Piano Concerto No.2 in A major, S.125 (1839-40, rev. 1849, 1861) [20:50]
Totentanz (Dance of death), Paraphrase on the ‘Dies irae’ for piano and orchestra, S.126, R.457, (1849, rev. 1853, 1859) [15:22]
Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)
Orchestre-Symphonique de Montréal/Charles Dutoit
rec. May, October 1990, St. Eustache, Montreal, Canada. DDD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 442 8833 [68:32]

The Australian Eloquence series has rummaged into the Decca archives to re-issue these four 1990 recordings. I’m sure that many collectors of Romantic repertoire will love to own this well performed and recorded re-issue from star French performer Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

Liszt arranged his Hungarian Fantasia from the Hungarian Rhapsody No.14 in F minor for solo piano, composed several years earlier. Musicologist David Ewen has written how the score, "spills over with sensual Hungarian melodies, fiery rhythms, and contrasting moods."

The Orchestre-Symphonique de Montréal under Charles Dutoit make a tremendous impact in the sombre opening, heavy with dark foreboding. At 0:57-1:25 (track 1) the piano entry from Thibaudet feels strangely impressionistic. The martial passage at 3:24-3:51 sounds like an under-rehearsed amateur band playing at a village carnival. In the passages 6:53-7:25 and 7:59-8:51 I loved the evocation of the nocturnal merriment of a gypsy-style folk dance. At 12:36-14:04 the score ends with a rather overblown display of dazzling fireworks.

In the opening section Allegro maestoso of the E flat major Concerto Thibaudet comes across as rather hesitant with little in the way of the searching emotional quality that players such as Zimerman and Yundi Li provide. That said, Thibaudet’s playing in the Quasi adagio is achingly beautiful and it would be hard to imagine a better performance. Clearly the influence of love and romance infuses Liszt’s writing here. In the Allegretto vivace from 2:25-4:06 (track 4) Thibaudet confidently builds up the passionately assertive character of the score. The powerful orchestral playing dominates the playing in the final section at 0:58-2:59 (track 5) where the scurrying music has a spirited, puckish quality. From 3:30-4:06 Thibaudet brings the score home to an impressive climax.

Liszt began composing his A major Concerto in 1839 making revisions to the score in 1849 and 1861. The first performance was given with Liszt conducting his pupil Hans Bronsart (von Schellendorff) as soloist at Weimar in 1857. To highlight the symphonic nature of the score it was named in the manuscript as a "concerto symphonique". The A major Concerto is designed in one single continuous movement, divided into six sections, connected by the use of ‘thematic transformation’. The writer Jay Rosenblatt in his article in ‘The Liszt Companion’ described the E flat major Concerto as, "Dionysian" and the character of the A major Concerto as "Apollonian". Biographer Humphrey Searle described the score as, "remarkable" and that "the themes are far more interesting and capable of development" than the E flat major Concerto. Searle thought the transition into a march in the Finale was, "the one really weak passage" and that it had "all the vulgarity of second-rate military band music."

In the opening section of this version one cannot fail to be impressed with the dramatic and stormy music. Thibaudet brings out the dark character of the music. In the Allegro moderato the significant and pensive cello passage at 0:59-2:16 (track 7) is expertly performed. The cadenza at 2:15-3:13 is interpreted with deft assurance. In the Allegro deciso the drama and tension builds to tremendous pitch. At 4:00 (track 8) the music sharply shifts to a more relaxed vein. The Allegro animato section that closes the score is performed with high excitement.

Evidently Liszt in 1838 was inspired by the magnificent frescoes titled ‘The Triumph of Death’ on the wall of the basilica in the Campo Santo at Pisa. In Liszt’s time the frescoes were attributed to Andrea Orcagna. As a result Liszt felt compelled to compose a score for piano and orchestra comprising a series of variations around the ‘Dies Irae’ plainchant. The Totentanz (Dance of death) described by Humphrey Searle as, "a work of astonishing dramatic power" was completed by Liszt in 1849 and underwent subsequent revision with the first performance and publication in 1865.

In the Totentanz one is struck by the martial quality to the music (0:00-1:19, track 10). There is a trudging quality at 2:00-2:38 and at 2:39-4:09 a noticeable increase in dramatic intensity. The weary character returns at 4:10-5:38 shifting at 5:39-6:55 to a more attractive and positive feel. At 6:56-9:48 Thibaudet powerfully and abruptly explodes into life. I loved the agitated and rhythmic virtuoso passage at 9:49-11:04. Especially impressive is the highly attractive dance-like section between soloist and orchestra at 11:31-12:36. The drama of the playing intensifies to a demonic conclusion at 15:13.

Arguably the most celebrated versions of the two Piano Concertos and the Totentanz are the exhilarating and confident performances from Krystian Zimerman and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa. They recorded the scores at the Symphony Hall, Boston in 1987 and these are available on Deutsche Grammophon 423 571-2. In the A major Concerto and the Totentanz Thibaudet cannot match the sheer scale of the dramatic contrasts. I would not wish to look elsewhere than this gratifying DG recording from Krystian Zimerman who provides an astonishing degree of feverish excitement.

There are many advocates for the excellent accounts of the two Piano Concertos from Sviatoslav Richter and the LSO under Kiril Kondrashin on Philips 464 710-2 (c/w Beethoven Piano Sonatas Nos. 10, 19, 20). The concertos, recorded by Richter in London in 1961 form part of the Philips ‘50 Great Recordings’ series. However, when compared to the modern digital sound from Yundi Li and Krystian Zimerman the Philips sonics are to my ears beginning to sound their age.

My first choice recording of the E flat major Concerto is the recently released 2006 Watford Colosseum recording from Chinese soloist Yundi Li and the Philharmonia under Andrew Davis. Yundi Li does a magnificent job with Liszt’s contrasting demands, displaying assured and exciting playing that blends drama with poetry on Deutsche Grammophon 477 640-2 (c/w Chopin Piano Concerto No.1).

I still treasure my 1982 vinyl recording of the E flat major Concerto in the sparkling and stylish performance from French soloist Cécile Ousset with the CBSO under Simon Rattle on EMI ASD 4307 (c/w Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No.2). I understand that this Cécile Ousset recording, with the same coupling, has been released on compact disc on EMI CDC 7 47221 2 but as yet I have not been able to track down a copy.

The booklet notes from Raymond Tuttle are well written, interesting and informative. Recorded in 1990 at St. Eustache, Montreal the sonics are pleasingly clear, cool and acceptably bright.

Yves Thibaudet and the Orchestre-Symphonique de Montréal under Dutoit perform these Liszt scores admirably with the benefit of excellent sound quality. This Australian Decca Eloquence release is certainly worth considering and I’m sure that many will be attracted to the well chosen all-Liszt programme.

Michael Cookson


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