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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Aprés une Lecture de Dante (from "Années de Pèlerinage" II: Italie), Vallée d’Obermann (from "Années de Pèlerinage" I: Suisse), Sonata in B minor
Zeynep Ucbasaran (piano)
Recorded May 27-28 2003, Abravanel Hall, Music Academy of the West, Santa Barbara, California
EROICA JDT3135 [65:29]


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This is the Turkish-born pianist Zeynep Ucbasaran’s third recording for Eroica – I have previously reviewed her first Liszt collection (JDT3092) and her coupling of Schubert’s late A major Sonata with the "Wanderer" Fantasy (JDT3108). I had some reservations about the first Liszt album, feeling that, while Ucbasaran was technically able and had a clear sense of structure, she did not always separate out the various strands in the textures or make her melodic lines sing enough. Her Schubert showed a considerable advance with regard to these points, and the picture began to emerge of an artist who always puts the composer first, never drawing attention to herself with agogic distortions or wayward rubato. The present Liszt collection seems to me her best yet. I immediately noticed many places in the "Dante Sonata" where melodic strands are separated from their accompaniments with real pianistic mastery and there is certainly no lack of singing tone.

I will concentrate on "Vallée d’Obermann" since it is the shortest piece and what I have to say goes for the other, longer, works. Ucbasaran opens with a genuine "Lento assai", very spacious and gloomy-sounding. She is fairly successful in making the repeated chords become an almost imperceptible pulsation, but just sometimes they begin to chug. In the "Più lento" sections she, like most other interpreters, actually goes faster. Now, I do realise that, if the opening is taken at a suitably broad tempo, these simple chords, unsupported by the previous repeated eighth-note movement, can seem impossibly far apart, and hence the idea has got around that you play "Più lento" but with halved note-values. However, I think it is worth trying to give Liszt what he actually asked for.

The C major section, where the sun seems to be breaking through the dark clouds, is handled with a real feeling for its burgeoning beauty, but the following storm brings me to my most serious reservation over this Liszt. I really appreciate that Ucbasaran is trying to give us something monumental, imposing, and not just a flashy display, and I am grateful she doesn’t attempt a Horowitz burnout (the Horowitz recording, which adopts his own doctored text, is a phenomenal pianistic experience, to be judged by its own standards rather than Liszt’s); but might she not live just a little bit more dangerously? I don’t want to call this laid back, since it has a good deal of weight and authority, but a notch more of sheer recklessness might have made it finer still. Symptomatic is her treatment of the two phrases marked "precipitato". She makes nothing much of them, whereas I was taught (by a Hungarian, Ilonka Deckers-Küszler, for what it’s worth) that this means you accelerate ahead of your basic tempo, thus creating the effect that things are on the verge of cracking up.

The final E major section begins with a "Lento" which is very spacious indeed. I have no issue with this in itself, but some pianists have been more successful in giving the listener the idea that this is the beginning of something that is going to build and build and build; the listener new to the piece might get the idea from Ucbasaran that it is going to be a quiet epilogue. At bar 184 the melodic line, according to the 1976 Hungarian edition which Ucbasaran says in the booklet she is using, should be B, C natural and then D sharp, not D natural as played here. I know it sounds odd, and this edition prints the C natural very small, as though there may be some doubt about it, and the old Peters edition gives a C sharp. But I’ve never heard it suggested that the problem might be resolved by playing a D sharp. The build-up, when it arrives, is very imposing but again, might she not have risked even more? I’ll have to part company with her at the end since I am sure that Liszt’s "staccatissimo" dot over the sforzato E major chord means that you take the pedal off to leave several seconds of stunned silence before breaking in with those final bars which seem to question all the triumph which has just been obtained. Pedalling through the pause (which is not held that long, either) weakens the effect. I appreciate that in a concert there is the ghastly possibility that people will wreck everything by breaking in with applause, but this is a recording anyway.

If I have been rather Beckmesser-ish over this it is because I feel it is a basically very finely conceived performance that it would be worth making better still. Much the same could be said of the other two works, though I did feel that in the Sonata Ucbasaran raises the tension to higher levels. In any case, this is certainly a very fine achievement. Anyone who picks up this disc will be left in no doubt that Liszt was a composer of lofty aims and noble inspiration, a fact which some still question, including, alas, many who actually play his music.

I feel that Ucbasaran has still much potential to realise and look forward to whatever she chooses to do next. Something tells me she would be a fine interpreter of Schumann, and what about the Debussy Preludes?

Christopher Howell

 



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