> Liszt Pagaini studies Hemelin [CH]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Six Grandes Etudes de Paganini, S141, Franz Schubertís Marsche für das Pianoforte übertragen, S426
Marc-André Hamelin (pianoforte)
Recorded 23rd-24th February 2002, Henry Wood Hall, London
HYPERION CDA67370 [57í 51"]


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There are two extremes of virtuosity. One might be defined as the old-school furrow-browed, mane-tossing kind which deliberately draws the attention of the public to the superhuman nature of the feats being performed. This was the way of Paganini, to judge from contemporary descriptions, of which a graphic one is provided in the excellent booklet to this CD.

The other extreme might be summed up with reference to a certain English organist who, from the privacy of his organ-loft, was astounding his admirers with a performance of one of those Bach pieces which seem to send hands and feet flying in all directions. Feeling they must see the great man playing it, his fans crept up the spiral stairs to risk a peep: their idol was engrossed in a motor magazine, seemingly oblivious of his hands and feet flailing around him. This, then, is the virtuosity which performs the great feats without looking as if you are doing them.

Now I have no idea what Ignaz Friedman looked like while he was playing, but his famous recording of "La Campanella", the third of these Paganini Studies, seems to have "look at me" written all over it. We are asked to gasp at the pianistic tight-rope walking. Nor have I ever seen Marc-André Hamelin in action, but the effect here is very much in the second category. You only have to listen to him elegantly placing the acciaccaturas on the second page to realise that the actual technical side has apparently vanished and he can just play the music.

This does not make his performance any less astonishing as a feat, indeed it is one of the finest Iíve heard, and I think that in todayís world this is the right approach. For while plenty of us would still long to play this music with ease, the fact is that it has now been mastered by an alarming number of people and the feat Ė if it just stopped at that Ė is therefore no longer so exceptional.

Iíve concentrated on "La Campanella" since this is the one piece here which everybody will know. It is actually the odd man out of the six studies since the others are all based on one or more of Paganiniís Caprices, Liszt having been so bowled over by the great violinistís playing that he wanted to create so pianistic works which would be their equivalent in difficulty. These were his first Studies for piano, to be followed by the Transcendental Studies and the various Concert Studies.

The trouble with Paganini has always been that he might have been a fantastic violinist but he was only a modest composer. With the technical aspects so fully mastered by the pianist we are invited to listen to these six pieces for their musical values which, in the first study especially, are perhaps not all that great. But never mind, Lisztís pianism ensures that most of the time our ear is beguiled in one way or another and Hamelin is an unfailingly musical guide to it all. No. 6, by the way, is the famous theme used by Rachmaninov and many others.

Donít imagine from the title that the Schubert Marches will be pretty little potboilers to round off the disc; Liszt has brought together material from a number of Schubert Marches to create a large-scale three-movement cycle of over 30 minutes which could very well be performed in the second half of a recital and leave nobody feeling undernourished, so varied are they in expression and pacing. It is interesting how Lisztís love of Schubert usually lets the spirit of the original come through, but from time to time he just has to let himself go. Hamelin understands when to be Schubert and when to be Liszt and also keeps a just balance between the two so the final effect is of a properly integrated work. The real music on the disc lies here.

I was not so enthusiastic about Hamelinís Schumann recital on Hyperion but he seems very well-suited to all the material here. He has also recorded another Liszt anthology on Hyperion which I havenít heard; if there are any plans for him to record one of the big Schubert Sonatas, on the strength of his Liszt-Schubert I would expect the results to be interesting.

Christopher Howell

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