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Franz LISZT (1811- 1996)
Sonata in b, S178 (1853) [31.12]
Fantasy and Fugue on B-A-C-H, S529ii (1871) [11.33]
Totentanz, S525 (1865) [16.12]
Markus Groh (piano)
Steinway D-274 piano.
Piano technician, Michel Brantjes
rec. Reitstadel-Neumarkt, Oberpfalz, Germany, 22 December 2004. DDD
Notes in Deutsch, English, Français.
Photos of artist.
CD tracks stereo 2.0; SACD tracks 2.0 stereo and 5.0 surround. Hybrid SACD
AVIE AV 2097 [59.00]
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Comparison Recordings

Sir Clifford Curzon, [ADD] Decca 452 306-2
Vladimir Horowitz, [1932 mono ADD] Naxos Historical 8.110606
Vladimir Horowitz, [1977 ADD] RCA 5935-2-RC
Alicia de Larrocha, [ADD] (7) Decca 0 28947 38132 7
Paul Barnes, Liszt Digital LD 101
Michael Ponti, Naxos 8.550408
Lilya Zilbersteyn, DG Eloquence 476 2463
Gotthardt Kladetzky, FSM FONO 97718
Byron Janis, Reiner, CSO {S126} [ADD] BMG RCA 09026-61250-2

Markus Groh phrases his notes for this recording in the form of a polite letter to Liszt wherein he offers a mock apology for "yet another" recording of the Sonata in b. In 1983 the Schwann catalogue listed a total of 13 recordings, while in 1997 it listed 54. Today it is all but impossible to determine just how many recordings are available as almost every recording ever made moves in and out of stock unpredictably. This remarkable recording is hardly merely "another" anything but something unique unto itself.

This sonata has from the beginning been known as a difficult work; most of the early recordings after Horowitz being unremarkable. Obviously, the work is hard to play, and even harder to appreciate. Brahms fell asleep while listening to Liszt play it. In addition to the venerable Horowitz - the 1932, not the 1977 recording which is considered by some commentators to be below Horowitz’s standard, although it still towers above much of the competition - an ephemeral live broadcast performance by Mark Zeltzer and the Decca LP and later CD by Sir Clifford Curzon were for many years the best available. Alicia de Larrocha’s version is unique and surprisingly strong and should be heard by anyone who loves this music.

Lately the Sonata, along with all of Liszt’s oeuvre, has been subject to thoughtful re-examination and the result has been two quite extraordinary performances. Paul Barnes was a student of Menahem Pressler and who teaches piano at the University of Nebraska, the Bösendorfer Institute in Vienna, and Indiana University. Barnes considered the work a construction based upon a "cross motive," three notes forming the succession of the scale intervals of a second followed by a third, which forms the backbone of most of the various themes of the sonata as well as other works by Liszt, and also the "Grail" theme from Wagner’s Parsifal. Barnes views the work as the arduous progress from primal evil to blessedness, a sequence related to the fourteen stations of the cross, with various episodes representing the Crucifixion, struggle, repose, and prayer. Like Liszt, Barnes is a committed mystical Catholic, and feels that by achieving understanding of Liszt’s state of mind the work can be made more comprehensible as a work of art. Barnes, like Liszt, believes that a work of art is God’s grace made physically manifest. He is a fine pianist, perhaps not in the league with Horowitz or Groh; nevertheless he presents an eloquent, dramatic, and very successful performance. review

Markus Groh finds links between the music and the Faust Legend — Mephistophelian laughter, and invocations of the Eternal Feminine — but also sees in the work various Biblical images beginning in Genesis, continuing on to the hammer-blows of the Crucifixion. He backs up his observations with a virtuoso performance of overwhelming power and drama, all the more compelling in SACD surround sound, a perspective which places the piano very precisely three meters in front of you in a relatively dry room. Groh projects an astonishing variety of textures, at times playing three voices clearly, each in a different mood. The work builds through many episodes to an astonishing climax where fresh resources of volume and beauty of sound are revealed, yet at times he achieves a heartbreaking delicacy and fragile beauty. He exceeds Curzon in the clarity of his rendering of the fugue, keeping the voices clearer than I’ve ever heard them. I have never heard the rhetorical power and logic of each and every note in this sprawling structure so clearly manifested.

I don’t mean to suggest that only religious mystics or Catholics can play and enjoy Liszt. While any effort put into understanding the composer’s state of mind at the time of composition can only facilitate the expression of the music, most of the music is, or should be, in the notes themselves. Like Bach’s, Liszt’s religious impulse was ultimately a universal one, so Catholics can enjoy Bach, Protestants can enjoy Liszt, and persons, such as myself who are neither can enjoy it all. Liszt himself was a true humanitarian and he and his music were as much at home in Rome as in Constantinople, in Leipzig, and in London. Liszt is even popular in Mexico City even though he expressed grief at the death of Emperor Maximilian; but Liszt had known the man and it was a purely personal, not a political, sentiment.

The Fantasia and Fugue on B.A.C.H., a curious homage to Bach, more notable as the obvious model* for Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony, is an impossible work for a single pianist who most of the time is frantically grabbing for notes. It would have made a nice work for two pianos and is ultimately most successful in its original version on the organ. The drama of the piano version is partly in the listener’s and performer’s panic that the whole edifice will fly off into pieces at any moment. Zilbersteyn comes closest to Groh in the task of keeping all the cats in the bag. Groh has the best control almost making it sound easy. Delivering richest drama, and best sound his piano sounds twice as big as anybody else’s although as with many of the Eloquence releases, the CD is not far behind an SACD in quality.

During an epidemic in Paris, Liszt managed his panic by improvising at the keyboard on the Dies Irae theme uninterruptedly more than twice around the clock. Apparently God was enjoying the concert and spared his life. Later the various versions of Totentanz were the result - and, many years further on, most of the works of Rachmaninov. The orchestral Totentanz sounds quite different from the solo piano version, although there are many points of congruence; if you are a Liszt collector you will want several versions of each.

The comparison recordings represent good examples of what has been accomplished by others, but Markus Groh is a truly exceptional artist and you may feel that these recordings of his are the best of these works ever made.

* I am aware of Vaughan Williams’ famous comment about "just wanting to write a piece of music", but besides having almost the same theme and mood, both works make important use of f minor. While Vaughan Williams did not want to be cast as a poet of war and strife, he may have avoided the title "A Liszt Symphony" and used for the first time a number because if war with Germany were about to erupt, a work entitled "Fantasia on a Fantasia by Liszt on a Theme by Bach" might hurt the work’s prospects for performance in England.

Paul Shoemaker

Truly exceptional performances and recordings, perhaps the best of these works ever made. ... see Full Review


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