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Franz LISZT (1811 - 1886)
Harmonies Poétiques et Réligieuses, S.154 (1834):#7, Funérailles [11.57]
Rhapsodie Espagnole, S.254 (1863) [13.53]
Années de Pélerinage, 1er Année: Suisse, S.160 (1855): #6, Vallée d’Obermann [14.31]
Sonata in b, S.178 (1853) [31.15]
Arnaldo Cohen, Steinway D Piano
Stefan Olsson, piano technician.
Recorded at former Academy of Music, Stockholm, Sweden, 7 July 2003
Notes in English, Deutsch, Français.
BIS CD -1253 [72.30]

Comparison Recordings of piano music by Liszt:

Rapsodie Espagnole, Murray Perahia, Sony SK 47180
Vallée d’Obermann, Lazar Berman, [ADD] DGG 437 206-2
Sonata in b, Clifford Curzon [AAD] Decca 452 306-2
Sonata in b, Funérailles, Vladimir Horowitz [restored Obert-Thorn] [ADD] Naxos 8.110606
Sonata in b, François René Duchable, Erato ECD 88091
Sonata in b, Paul Barnes, Liszt Digital LD 101

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 Paul 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 .......

Paul Shoemaker

Comment received

I just want to express my sheer joy and gratitude for the mentioning of
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,

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