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Concert Artist Recordings

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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Sonata in B minor (1855)
Légende No. 1: St François díAssise prêchant aux oiseaux (1863)
Légende No. 2: St François de Paule marchant sur les flots (1863)
La Lugubre Gondola 1 (1882)
Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (1860)
Dubravka Tomsic, piano
Recorded July 2001 at SUNY Performing Arts Centre, Purchase, New York
IPO IPOC1001 [71.59]

There seem to be as many ways of articulating the opening notes of Lisztís B minor Sonata as there are pianists to play the work. Dubravka Tomsic, her octave Gs dry, deliberate and meticulously placed, comes as close as any to realising the composerís marking of quasi pizzicato, a direct allusion to orchestral inspiration in a work where the piano writing threatens more than once to transcend the limits of what is possible. Some passages, immense though they are, are magnificently conceived for the instrument, whereas others, notably the big, cantabile theme accompanied by pulsing, repeated chords, donít look like piano music at all when viewed on the page. Each kind of writing represents a very particular challenge to the player.

The other challenge stems from the workís structure. In a single, unbroken, half-hour span, the conventional analysis nonetheless traces a four-movement pattern; though there is an argument, to which I am sympathetic, for viewing it as only three. In any event, the concentration never flags, nor should it be allowed to in performance. This is particularly difficult to achieve in the studio, with no audience present and the piece played, perhaps, in short fragments. I donít know how long the takes were here, but Tomsic is supremely successful at tracing the progress of the work from those ominous, opening octaves to the final, low B.

I had never heard of Dubravka Tomsic before receiving this CD for review. She is Slovenian, and studied with Rubinstein, amongst others. The biographical notes accompanying the disc suggest that she is particularly well known in the USA, and playing of this quality should encourage we Europeans to hear her live at the first opportunity. The piano sound is lifelike and convincing, though recorded closely enough for us to be able to hear the dampers on the strings from time to time, particularly in the sonata. The CD is beautifully presented, with an excellent accompanying essay by Benjamin Folkman featuring several musical examples.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Tomsicís reading of the Liszt Sonata is the uncanny clarity of texture she achieves. In passages teeming with notes one is repeatedly impressed by the control which allows for each note to be heard. Judicious use of the pedal and choice of tempo are obvious factors here, but finger control is the most important one, and it is near miraculous. In a score so loaded with expressive indicators pianists will inevitably respect certain of them and choose to ignore others. She is more faithful to the score than many pianists. In one of the later appearances of the big theme already mentioned [track 1, 10.40] many of the note values are marked staccatissimo. The composerís intentions are perhaps less than clear, and many pianists simply ignore these markings. Tomsicís way of interpreting them is individual and considered, and the result is astonishing: huge, dark chords that seem to resound in the soul. This kind of thick, highly charged sonority at the bottom of the keyboard is frequently exploited in this work, but the pianist brings out the different voices, so often lost in a morasse of darkness and confusion, with remarkable skill. At other points we might be surprised by certain of her interpretative decisions, but they are almost always supported by the score. She is less slow than most in the passage leading up to the final coda, for example [track 3, 8.38] but a glance at the page reveals the marking for this passage is Allegro moderato, changing to Lento assai only for the final eleven bars.

This is music-making of the utmost conviction, satisfying and apparently the outcome of a patient quest as to how best the realise the composerís intentions. In Tomsicís hands the sonata sounds extraordinarily modern, placing the composer firmly in that continuum leading to Schoenberg and beyond. There are many recorded performances available, but it is this, I think, which makes this one special for me. Elisabeth Leonskaja (Warner) also delivers playing of exceptional clarity, but her performance overall lacks character when set against this one. Arnaldo Cohenís recent, highly praised performance on Bis seems more conventional and less searching. Either of these performances, though, would satisfy anyone wanting to add the Liszt Sonata to their collection, as would many earlier recordings, notably, perhaps, that of Clifford Curzon. But it would be a pity to miss this most individual yet faithful reading, particularly if the rest of the programme appeals.

The same clarity of texture and expression characterises the other pieces. The Black Gondola is slower and heavier, more immediate than Stephen Hough on Virgin, losing perhaps a little in eeriness by comparison but more grandly tragic and with an almost overwhelming climax, a different and equally valid view of the piece. Hough turns in a performance of the Mephisto Waltz of astonishing virtuosity. Tomsic is less conventional here, more thoughtful perhaps, with greater delineation of the different episodes of the story, and once again very respectful of the text. To give just one example, in the passage marked Presto fantastico [track 7, 5.04] the presto is so perfectly judged that the fantastico becomes believable, making us think of Mendelssohnís (and Shakespeareís) fairies (though whether the passage is also played pianissimo as the composer asks is another matter).

The two Legends are magnificently done. Hough plays the first in his Virgin recital and is highly convincing, but so is the young French pianist Claire-Marie Le Guay on an Accord disc featuring outstanding performances of the two concertos. She is particularly thoughtful in the first Legend, but all the same it is Tomsic who takes the palm, more successful, I think, at integrating the difficult accompanying figures Ė the twittering of the birds, the rolling waters, displaying once again the utmost clarity of texture Ė which run alongside the main thematic material in each piece. And Tomsic succeeds in some extraordinary way at evoking the very saintliness of the protagonists, the second Legend in particular closing in an atmosphere of unparalleled goodness and grandeur.

William Hedley


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