Consolation – Pollack/Cambria, Cliburn/RCA
Valse-Impromptu – Rubinstein/RCA, Bolet/Decca
Transcriptions – Bolet/Decca, Ginsburg/Philips
Etudes – Arrau/Philips, Bolet/Decca, Kempf/BIS
Sonata – Arrau/Philips, Richter/Philips, Argerich/DG
Stephanie McCallum is an Australian pianist who
was born in Sydney and studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of
Music. She then took more advanced studies in England with the
highly esteemed Alkan champion Ronald Smith. Her Wigmore Hall
debut took place in 1982, and she continues frequently to perform
in England as well as France.
McCallum’s specialties include Alkan, Liszt,
and modernist music by composers such as Xenakis and Boulez. Over
the years, she has built up a nice discography, and her most recent
solo recordings include a 2-cd set of Carl Maria von Weber’s complete
McCallum’s program consists of relatively sedate
Liszt pieces played very well until the arrival of the Sonata
in B minor. In this work McCallum is frankly out of her element,
playing in an undernourished manner that does not capture the
work’s intensity, poetry or virtuosity.
A more detailed synopsis of McCallum’s Liszt
Consolation No. 3 in D flat major (Lento placido)
- Although Liszt intended his 6 Consolations to be played as a
group, No.3 is often singled out for programming at Liszt recitals.
It is gorgeous and relatively placid music with subtle urges.
Average timings tend to be a little over 4 minutes, and the 4
½ minute performance of Earl Wild on Ivory Classics has its stagnant
moments. Versions under 4 minutes, such as the excellent Daniel
Pollack on Cambria, offer greater rhythmic vitality than most
and can be very appealing as long as they don’t forget the tranquil
and subtle nature of the piece. There are some versions that go
well beyond the placid mode and inject a strong dose of drama.
Van Cliburn’s RCA recording is in this category; he may be a little
wayward, but I fall for his angst every time I hear it.
Stephanie McCallum holds up very well in the
above company and with other versions including the ones from
Rubinstein, Bolet, and Horowitz. Her tempo falls within the norm,
the music’s placid nature is obeyed, subtle urges are incisively
presented, and the rhythmic vitality is within reasonable boundaries.
Most important, she fully captures the luster and beauty of the
Valse-Impromptu in A flat - This is a charming
and vivacious piece with a delicious sparkle. Excellent contrast
is offered by a second waltz theme of a somewhat dark and dramatic
context. Arthur Rubinstein on RCA conveys the above mentioned
qualities, while Jorge Bolet on Decca is slower and delivers a
McCallum is altogether more jittery and impetuous
than Rubinstein or Bolet, and it sounds as if she is having a
great time with the first waltz’s cross-rhythms. Her sparkle is
intact, and the drama of her reading as strong as Bolet’s. The
interpretation is outstanding and executed with flair and technical
Mendelssohn/Schubert Transcriptions - Except
for "Serenade", McCallum is again impressive. I find
that she has the advantage over Bolet in "Die Forelle"
and "Auf dem Wasser zu singen". Bolet plays the two
pieces in a very sweet and smooth manner that eventually becomes
cloying. McCallum is quicker with more edge and rhythmic elasticity,
resulting in interesting interpretations that don’t outlast their
However, McCallum’s quickness pays no dividends
in the extremely sad "Serenade". I went back in time
to the transcendent performance of Grigory Ginsburg in 1947 in
Moscow. Ginsburg gives us 6 minutes of striking pathos mixed with
a gorgeous salon-type sparkle. McCallum speeds through the piece
in 5 minutes, and it is very difficult to convey much pathos with
Transcendental Etudes Nos. 3/9/12 - One very
noticeable feature of McCallum’s program up to this point has
been the lack of any virtuosi Liszt music. Those readers familiar
with the Transcendental Etudes will know that virtuosity also
is not a pressing need in the three Etudes played by McCallum.
Etude No. 3 is idyllic music evocative of natural
landscapes and requires a sparkling touch. Freddy Kempf on BIS
and François-René Duchable on EMI Classics are too
heavy of heart and dramatic, their readings never soaring. If
a very slow lullaby is your preference, Jerome Rose’s 5-½ minute
reading on Monarch Classics offers a most lovely and moving rendition.
Claudio Arrau on Philips and both Bolet performances (Decca and
Ensayo) are outstanding in their ability to transport the listener
to a fertile and tranquil land where the spirit is enriched.
Unfortunately, McCallum takes the heavy road
with Etude No.3. Although her performance is not slow by any means,
she sounds lethargic and cannot manage to inject any sparkle or
lift to her interpretation. Essentially, McCallum abandons the
inner vitality she conveys in the earlier pieces on the program.
Further, she delivers the gently swaying rhythms in a perfunctory
Busoni described Etude No. 9 as "leafing
through a packet of yellowed love letters", and the music’s
nostalgic nature is prominent. Although Liszt initially wrote
the piece in a simple three-part form, he subsequently extended
the introduction and added an inner section for greater contrast
with the placid first section. Freddy Kempf’s version is surprisingly
slow and luxurious with inner sections conveying determined tensions
that are compelling instead of the usual bombast most pianists
make of the music. McCallum plays the 9th Etude very
well; her tempo is moderate, and she appealingly caresses the
phrasing in the first section. However, her tension in the inner
sections sounds slightly contrived, and she can’t match Kempf
for conveying the inherent nostalgia of the piece.
Etude No. 12, "Chasse-neige" or "Driven
snow", is rapturous and tension-filled music enhanced by
tremendous tremulo effects from the middle voice and swirling
chromatic scales. McCallum exceptionally delivers the tension
and rapture, although not possessing the superb sonority of Arrau
Sonata in B minor – McCallum finally enters the
world of Lisztian virtuosity with the tremendously intense and
frenetic Sonata in B minor. The three versions listed above in
the heading are among the most revered interpretations on record,
and each well brings out the sudden changes in emotional display,
the primitive power of the "Allegro energico" section,
and the sublime nature of the "Andante sostenuto". Most
important, each of these versions is a heady reminder of how shocking
this music must have been to the audiences of Liszt’s time.
I have to say that McCallum’s performance is
disappointing. Her mild-mannered approach with only a modicum
of poetry is among the least compelling versions I have heard
over the years. Tension, frenzy, power, and poignancy are in short
supply, and I had trouble maintaining attention over the span
of McCallum’s relatively slow 31-minute performance.
In conclusion, there are dozens of Liszt recital
discs that take priority over the McCallum offering. Her interpretation
of the Sonata in B minor is not competitive, as she seems to have
all she can handle in simply playing the notes correctly. The
other performances, although generally enjoyable, do not stand
out in a highly crowded field of alternative recordings. The sound
stage is excellent, but there is a slightly glassy sheen to the
upper notes. My recommendation is to pass on this ABC Classics