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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Complete Piano Music, Volume 20
Two Concert Studies, S145 (1862/3) [7’38]. Trois Études de Concert, S144 (1848) [19’28]. Etude en douze exercices, S136 (1826) [43’24]. Morceau de Salon, S142/R4a (1840) [2’07]. Ab irato, S142/R4b (1852) [2’47]. Mazeppa, S136 (????) [7’09].
William Wolfram (piano).
Rec. Performing Arts Centre, Country Day School, King, Ontario, Canada, from January 30th-February 2nd, 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.557014 [63’06]

William Wolfram is an excellent choice as one of the contributors to this multi-pianist series of the complete Liszt piano music. Juilliard-trained, his technique seems ideally suited to Liszt’s not inconsiderable demands. Given his impressive history of competition successes - including Third in the Tchaikovsky Competition, Moscow - this should not come as a surprise. His concert activities seem to be concentrated around the United States, although he has recently taken on a recording project of the concertos of Edward Collins with Marin Alsop and the RSNO.

That said, the disc does not get off to the best start. Gnomenreigen (‘Dance of the Gnomes’) is a notorious test-piece of light-touch Liszt. Arrau springs to mind as a benchmark, presently on Philips 50, 464 713-2. Wolfram is on the heavy side, and only with the advent of the sparkling right-hand at 0’25 do things get better. But the overall impression is a bit lumpy - not helped by Naxos’s close piano recording. More successful is Waldesrauschen (‘Forest Murmurs’), a pre-Debussy/Ravel piece that here exhibits just the right amount of opening-out.

The three Concert Studies, S144 are individually-titled as ‘Il lamento’, La leggierezza’ and ‘Un sospiro’. The opening of the first comes as a bit of a punch in the stomach here, after the feather-filigree that ends ‘Waldesrauschen’, rather than acting as a dramatic gesture. As the performance progresses, however, lines are well-projected and chords carefully weighted. The contrasting Chopinesque F minor ‘La leggierezza’ is a pool of Lisztian liquid serenity; it suits Wolfram’s temperament perfectly. The effect is similar for ‘Un sospiro’, the third study, where Wolfram sets up a bed of sound, comprising rippling arpeggios. Marvellous.

The publication date of 1826 for the Etude en Douze Exercices is correct - Liszt started these while thirteen years old!. Revisions were the Grandes Études of 1837 and the Études d’éxécution transcendante (1851), yet how interesting to hear these sparkling, youthful pieces; youthful, yes, but entirely worthy of consideration in their own right. Please, please, do not be put off by the title, which smacks of school-time Czerny. Over the running-time of nearly three quarters of an hour, there is a huge variety, taking in a positively bejewelled No. 9 (Allegro grazioso) and a delicate No. 11 (again, Allegro grazioso) alongside the challenging repeated-note No. 2 and the more fiery No. 1 (Wolfram finds much beauty here, also, though). No. 5 became the basis for ‘Feux-follets’; No. 7 becoming, later, ‘Harmonies du soir’.

Interesting to have the two Études de perfectionnement, S142 set alongside each other (the ‘Morceau de salon’, track 18, is an earlier version of ‘Ab irato’, track 19). The first version was composed for the Belgian theorist Fétis’ ‘Méthode de méthodes de piano’ and is not so far removed from the world of the First Mephisto Waltz (1859/60). Ab irato is highly Romantic with a very black ending, though.

Finally, Mazeppa, S136, a close blood-relation of the fourth of the S136 studies heard earlier on the disc - the kinship is very audibly obvious. The programmatic basis of Mazeppa (Mazeppa was page to the King of Poland) is a wild horse-ride that he is forced to embark upon because of misdemeanours. Byron’s 1819 poem encouraged interest in this subject that seemed so suitable for the Romantic temperament. Wolfram is perhaps not as uninhibited as he could be. The impression is somehow that were he to play this live, things would be different. So, while chords are carefully placed, in the concert hall more risks might have been taken. Wolfram shows signs of breaking through the barriers of studio recording without actually getting there, a shame as this would have been the perfect way to end a much-varied disc that contains much to delight. It does not preclude a recommendation, however, as there is so much to enjoy over the course of this hour’s worth of music. I can’t help wondering how many notes Wolfram plays in that time!

After writing this review I read my colleague Michael Cookson’s take on the same disc (Review ) and found we are in accord. Wolfram is a pianist of no average musicality. It is perhaps telling that that element of his playing is highlighted here, given the technical demands required in this particular repertoire. The impression is that Wolfram conquered these demands a long time ago and that these performances go a long way from just mere note-spinning at great velocity. He finds the lyrical Romantic that lies at the very heart of Liszt - no matter how black the page may be.

Strongly recommended.

Colin Clarke

Michael Cookson also thought highly of this disc

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