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MusicWeb has suspended the sale of Concert Artists discs until it can be resolved which were actually recorded by Joyce Hatto


Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Twelve Transcendental Studies (1852), S.139
Joyce Hatto (piano)
Recorded 28th December 1990 and 6th January 2001 at the Concert Artist Studios

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The cover of this disc has a cartoon of Liszt which I feel I ought to recognise (itís unacknowledged and has an indecipherable squiggle of a signature at the bottom); the Liszt of popular legend, his arms and fingers flailing like octopuses, the whole keyboard buckling and rising like a ship breaking up in a storm, while the old hypocrite has a beatific smile and a halo over his head. This image of the composer dies hard, but listen to the words of Stanford who, as a young and impressionable young man in his early twenties, heard Liszt play at a semi-private gathering and recalled the event many years later:

"He was the very reverse of all my anticipations, which inclined me, perhaps from the caricatures familiar to me from my boyhood, to expect to see an inspired acrobat, with high-action arms, and wild locks falling on the keys. I saw instead a dignified composed figure, who sat like a rock, never indulging in a theatrical gesture, or helping out his amazingly full tone with the splashes and crashes of a charlatan, producing all his effects with the simplest means, and giving the impression of such ease that the most difficult passages seemed like childís play" (Pages from an Unwritten Diary, Edward Arnold 1914, pp.148-9).

So how do you play Liszt? Well, I studied certain of his works (not the Transcendental Studies) with the redoubtable Ilonka Deckers-Küszler, who was most insistent that this music was to be played with the same respect for the text you would think right for a Beethoven sonata, without rhythmic distortions, manic rubato or any other playing to the gallery. In other words, you play it like the good music it is. Furthermore, Deckers-Küszler did not claim this as a discovery of her own; she was taught it at the Conservatoire of her native Budapest in the early years of the 20th Century, and there were teachers there who had it from Liszt.

Unfortunately, Ilonka Deckers-Küszler was a somewhat mysterious character who never committed any of her playing to disc; she felt, however, that her ideas were preserved in the series of Liszt recordings made by her tragically short-lived pupil Edith Farnadi for Westminster. Alas, these have never been readily accessible and I have never yet succeeded in hearing any of them, or even in knowing exactly which works were recorded. Also of interest would be the Liszt recordings by Louis Kentner, who studied at Budapest Conservatoire at about the same time as Deckers-Küszler. Again, I have never succeeded in tracking them down.

But what has all this to do with Joyce Hatto? Quite simply, that she too sits down at the piano and, with technical nonchalance but a complete lack of any virtuoso fuss, just gets on with playing the pieces "straight", like the good music they are. Whether she learnt this from some past teacher or whether her instincts led her this way I know not, nor does it matter much. She is in that royal line of Liszt interpreters who believe this is great music and is to be played as such.

Now, what you wonít get from Hatto is the sort of filigree passage-work that makes you gasp at the sheer crystalline evenness of it all. Her passage-work is good, but it is not part of her agenda to parade its "goodness" as an end in itself. In other words, if itís Liszt the circus-master youíre after, you wonít get it. But if you have resisted Liszt because of his showy image, then these wonderfully musicianly performances might make you change your mind.

If there is any shortcoming, it is that Hatto tends more towards healthy robustness than to winsome poetry. The booklet reprints 1956 notes by Humphrey Searle, according to whom Harmonies du Soir "conjures up the atmosphere of a peaceful evening with the distant echoes of bells". Here Hatto, for better or for worse, is full-toned and intense.

The recording dates are eleven years apart. The sound is fairly consistent nonetheless, warm and pleasing if not especially lifelike. All the same, if you care about Liszt the composer you should not miss this disc.

Christopher Howell

see also review by Jonathan Woolf


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