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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Operatic Paraphrases and Transcriptions, Volume 1

Salve Maria de Jérusalem (I Lombardi)
Ernani – Paraphrase de Concert
Don Carlos – Coro di festa e marcia funebre
Aida – Danza sacra e duetto finale
Rigoletto – Paraphrase de Concert
Il Trovatore – Miserere
Simon Boccanegra – Réminiscences


Faust – Waltz

Joyce Hatto (piano)
rec. Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge, UK, April 1989, December 2003, February 2004

Regular readers of Musicweb reviews will be familiar with the name Joyce Hatto. It was at the beginning of 2003 that I received the first of her discs for review, Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3. Her name on the cover took me back to the sixties and many happy hours spent sifting through cheap and cheerful LPs in second-hand shops. I had never heard her play, however, whether in concert or on record, and was expecting something routine and workmanlike. How wrong I was! The performance held my attention from those simple opening octaves: it is a stupendous reading worthy of a place amongst the finest.

Since then I have reviewed a few of her discs here and have had the privilege of providing the insert notes for quite a few more. Her discs are regularly reviewed by my Musicweb colleagues. Readers might be forgiven for thinking that this site was running a single-handed campaign to promote her work. There have even been accusations of bias. Well, doubters can now look elsewhere, for there has recently been an upsurge in interest in this remarkable artist in other publications as well. An interview with Richard Dyer in the Boston Globe, for example, which was followed by a long piece on this site by Ates Orga. Then, of course, and not a moment too soon, came recognition from the Gramophone, in an article about her where she is described as "one of the greatest [pianists] Jeremy Nicholas has ever heard".

Here she is in a collection of operatic transcriptions, an issue which forms part of her huge Liszt discography. Liszt's catalogue of works contains an astonishing number of piano transcriptions of works by other composers. Some of these are extremely faithful to the original – one thinks of the Beethoven symphonies or the fearsome Erlkönig amongst many Schubert Lieder – whereas others are more rhapsodic, taking themes from here and there in larger works and treating them to more or less free development. These latter pieces are more properly referred to as paraphrases, and one of the most remarkable aspects of them is how they manage to sound like Liszt and the original composer at the same time. Joyce Hatto writes the insert notes for this disc, where she carefully explains Liszt's lifelong interest in Italian opera, embarking on more than one project, though none ever reached completion. These transcriptions and paraphrases, then, are as close as we can get to a Liszt Italian opera.

The recital opens in an atmosphere of devotion with a transcription of the passage Verdi composed to replace an Ave Maria whose removal was ordered by the Milanese authorities before the first performance of I Lombardi in that city in 1843. The Ernani Paraphrase is, as the title suggests, a kind of fantasy based on themes from the opera, dramatic, fiery and passionate, a piece of virtuoso piano writing which nonetheless retains its theatrical atmosphere. As does Liszt's way with Don Carlos, beginning with a burst of dance-like energy and about which I can do no better than to quote the pianist, who writes that Liszt "... managed to convey the main ingredients of the vast score in about twelve minutes flat. All the great tunes are there, or suggested in some instances ..." About the Aida paraphrase she writes that it is one of the most difficult, though perhaps typically she refers not to the cascades of notes she dispatches with astonishing skill but to the problem of creating "a seamless transition" between life (the Sacred Dance) and death (the final duet) as well as the contrast between the sacred world and the profane. The piece itself is a remarkably moving act of homage on the part of one great composer to another. The Rigoletto Paraphrase concentrates on the great Act 3 quartet and sent me back to Verdi's score to appreciate Liszt's extraordinary skill in bringing out not only the music but the character of each of the protagonists. And the disc is almost worth buying just for Joyce Hatto's amusing backstage story recounted in the booklet ... or if not, for the stunning octaves with which the piece ends! Most listeners, will, I think, be familiar with the melody of the Miserere from Il Trovatore, but Liszt's transcription will, as is so often the case with this remarkable collection, open their ears to a new way of hearing the piece. The final Verdi-based piece carries Liszt's rather charming title Réminiscences, implying much more than a simple transcription. And so it is, an extended piano piece in Liszt's later, less overtly flamboyant style, presenting and developing a number of themes from Simon Boccanegra in a most inventive and varied way. This is perhaps the piece which most clearly encapsulates the qualities of this extraordinary pianist, particularly the middle section which features stunning virtuosity as well as playing which is both poised and beautifully sensitive.

The disc ends with the Waltz from Gounod's Faust. The ferocious outer sections of this ten-minute work enclose a central section based on the love duet Ô nuit d'amour. Let us turn a final time to the pianist's own words. Quoting her teacher, Serge Krish, she writes that "…bravura does not just mean velocity. It encompasses every aspect of a performance, tone, colouring, inner voices, crescendos and decrescendos, accelerandos, and, above all, that spontaneous manner that must always disguise the many hours of preparation, consideration and practice that it takes to formulate a performance that still follows the composer's wishes and not one's own." I think these words are better than any I might write as a way of appreciating Joyce Hatto's playing as well as her musical and personal integrity, placing herself always at the service of the composer.

The disc is well recorded and presented. If the programme appeals it is not to be missed.

William Hedley

Complete Concert Artist Catalogue

see also Joyce Hatto by Ates Orga



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