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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Piano Sonata D960 in B flat
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)/Franz LISZT (1811-1886) Song transcriptions: Ständchen, S560 No.7 (after Schwanengesang, D597); Das Wandern, S565 No.1 (after Die schöne Müllerin, D795); Wohin?, S.565 No.5 (after Die schöne Müllerin, D795); Aufenthalt, S560 No.3 (after Schwanengesang, D597)
Franz LISZT (1811-1886) Mephisto Waltz No.1, S514)
Evgeny Kissin (piano)
rec. 10 & 11 June 2003, SWR-Studio, Freiburg, Germany. DDD
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 82876 58462 2 [72í 21"]

Considering Kissinís reputation and place in the public eye, his most recent records have disappointed some critics. Nevertheless, there is always a huge feeling of anticipation on a new release and this was no exception for me. How would this towering virtuoso approach Schubertís last sonata and its simultaneously simple and difficult opening?

Postponing an account of that reaction for a moment, I must say that this CD is worth buying for the account of the Mephisto Waltz alone. Kissinís overwhelming performance is the product of compendious pianistic resource; crystalline scales, powerful but sharply-etched octaves, delicate trills, precipitous leaps Ė itís all there. This workís reputation as a display piece, though well-deserved, has tended to obscure its purely musical and structural virtues. Like the B minor Sonata, this first Mephisto Waltz is unified by thematic transformation and Kissin gets across this structural integrity to perfection. He also captures beautifully the languid eroticism of the slow version of Faustís theme, music that would not be out of place in a late-night piano bar in an exotic neighbourhood of one the worldís great cities. There are contemporary hints of Tristan and, well in the future, of Scriabin. This is a performance of the highest class; virtuosity at the service of musicality.

The Schubert/Liszt transcriptions are of equal quality. Liszt makes Schubertís rather chaste serenade much more sensual, a poem delivered across the bed rather from underneath the balcony. The imitations of the last stanza suggest the loversí duetting appassionato (a listener with a vivid imagination might detect a hint of "Over the Rainbow" near the end). I canít imagine a better performance than Kissinís.

The three other transcriptions fare equally well, in particular, Lisztís depiction of Rellstabís "rushing torrent" and "howling forest" in Aufenthalt. In Kissinís hands, Liszt, for all the virtuoso bravura, never overwhelms Schubertís melodies. The miniature tone poems that result show just how acutely Liszt penetrated to the essence of the songs.

But all that Ė and it is absolutely top-drawer Ė is only a third of the disc. Schubertís last sonata, especially the first movement, challenges the pianist from the very first statement of the theme. And Kissin disappointed immediately; that first statement, potentially so magical, is laboured, hampered by huge agogic accents, weighed down by its own portentousness. I wanted to say, "just play the notes"! Semplice, donít try so hard! There is some wonderful cantabile playing in this movement and Kissin is more straightforward when there is more happening but the most songlike projection does not redeem for me this misconceived approach.

The Andante fares as badly. Itís not just a matter of tempo; the spirit of the music is absent. The theme is melancholy enough but sadness does not necessarily mean slowness. It feels as if Kissin is striving for an effect, to be different, though the occasional vocal contributions suggest that the pianist really is feeling what he is playing.

The beautifully light and skittish performances of the Scherzo and Allegro finale return Kissin to his best form. As with the Liszt, I found myself totally involved in the music; the finale shows an ideal balance of cantabile melody and delicate accompaniment, the little flashes of whimsy are delightful.

In summary, the performance of the first two movements of the Schubert is too mannered for a recommendation. But buy this CD for masterly readings of the Liszt works and you have the bonus of two delicious sonata movements. Iíd go for that!

Roger Blackburn

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