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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
The Liszt Album

Consolation No. 3 from Six Consolations, S172 (1850)
Valse-Impromptu, S213 (1850-52)
"Auf Flügeln des Gesanges" from Seven Mendelssohn Lieder, S547
trans. Liszt (1840)
Die Forelle (The Trout), S564 after Franz Schubert
trans. Liszt (second version – 1846)
Schwanengesang, S560, No. 7 (Serenade) after Franz Schubert
trans. Liszt (1838-39)
"Auf dem Wasser zu singen" from 12 Lieder, S558 after Franz Schubert
trans. Liszt (1837-38)
Transcendental Etude No. 3, "Paysage" (1851)
Transcendental Etude No. 9, "Ricordanza" (1851)
Transcendental Etude No. 12, "Chasse-neige" (1851)
Sonata in B minor, S178 (1853)
Stephanie McCallum, piano
Recorded Eugene Goossens Hall, Ultimo, Sydney, February/July 2002
ABC CLASSICS 472763 [78:42]


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Comparisons:
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 piano sonatas.

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 recital follows:

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 piece.

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 meatier performance.

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 command.

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 welcome.

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 her tempo.

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 manner.

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 or Bolet.

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 disc.


Don Satz

 



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