Comparison Recordings of piano music
Rapsodie Espagnole, Murray Perahia,
Sony SK 47180
Vallée d’Obermann, Lazar Berman,
[ADD] DGG 437 206-2
Sonata in b, Clifford Curzon [AAD] Decca
Sonata in b, Funérailles, Vladimir
Horowitz [restored Obert-Thorn] [ADD]
Sonata in b, François René
Duchable, Erato ECD 88091
Sonata in b, Paul Barnes, Liszt Digital
Many people think a
piano is just a machine, you push the
button and it makes a noise. Indeed,
Charles Rosen asserted this in one of
his books, ridiculing pianists who squirm
and writhe and gesture when all they
are doing, all they can do, is push
down a key. But to some artists there
is much more to it than that. A magnificent
grand piano is a special kind of instrument.
As with a violin, a master player achieves
from it a sound unlike anything an amateur,
vorsetzer, or even a less skilled
pianist can accomplish. One only has
to be briefly in the room with such
an instrument and a pianist who can
control this great beast has only to
run a few notes in the mid bass to cause
an other-worldly thrill to course down
the spine, an entirely unforgettable
experience. Until very recently recordings
could not begin to capture this magic.
I’m talking about an almost mystical
union of musician and instrument. Nyregyházy
had it, Busoni had it, Liszt probably
had it, too. And Arnaldo Cohen has it.
He is the kind of artist whose fingers
meld and merge into the keys so that
it is his very flesh that touches the
strings inside the instrument.
The Sonata in b
minor has always been a controversial
work, a difficult work to listen to,
much more difficult to play. When Brahms
heard Liszt play it, he fell asleep.
At a performance in Vienna, Eduard Hanslick
ran out of the hall in a fit of giggles.
Liszt’s student Eugène d’Albert
made a piano roll recording which may
be our best record of just how Liszt
himself played it. Horowitz and Curzon
have made definitive recordings of it
in the 78 and LP era. François
René Duchable recorded a bright,
facile version on digital CD. Recently
Barnes has made a careful study
of what he calls the "cross motif"
in the work and hence produced a convincing
performance based on that insight. This
sonata has no good tunes but does achieve
some interesting rhythmic and dramatic
episodes, and something resembling a
fugue (one Bach would rate at no more
than a C-minus, of course). So, the
performer has his work cut out for him
to make something of this music, and
Arnaldo Cohen caresses the work with
sensual piano sound and brings us a
thrilling and dramatic piano experience.
The Rapsodie Espagnole
is based on the "Folies d’Espagne"
tune used famously for variations by
Rachmaninov, Corelli, and others, less
famously by Vivaldi, and even by J.
S. Bach in his BWV 211. This and the
other works on the disk are less successful
than the Sonata, but still provide
beautiful, dramatic, piano sound. If
you want a logical exploration of the
compositional structure, and will settle
for fine but not transcendent piano
sound, you may be happier with Curzon,
Berman or Horowitz.
I’ve seen some odd
record covers in my life, but this one
wins a prize. I don’t see what a picture
of a brown boy jumping off a rock into
a lake has to do with Liszt, unless
perhaps this is a youthful picture of
the pianist himself, but even then .......
I just want to express
my sheer joy and gratitude for the mentioning
the CD cover at the end of the review
of BIS-CD-1253 (Liszt Piano Music
played by Arnaldo Cohen)! That happens
too rarely and when it does it is
almost exclusively because the cover
doesn't appeal to the critic, even
though Mr. Shoemaker in this case seems
to be baffled rather than
disgusted by it.
What could have been more boring than
having a picture of Liszt, or a
landscape or even a photo of the pianist
on the cover? The image on the
Liszt disc was suggested by Mr. Cohen
himself without any explanations
at all why he wanted it. We at BIS loved
the idea instantly, without
asking ourselves why. Does a good cover
really have to have obvious
connections to the composer or the artist?
We believe not. And yet, we
think this one does in a way: what could
be more suicidal for a pianist
than recording this repertoire? And
will he survive the critics?
Personally I also feel that a slight
touch of humor and irony will only
do good for a composer who is almost
always presented in the most
dead-boring ways. A quick glance at
other Liszt CDs reviewed on your
site only stresses my point.
A good cover should, among other criteria,
primarily draw the attention
of the presumptive buyer during that
fraction of a second before his/her
eyes rushes on to the next CD on the
shelf. We think this one does.
With best regards,