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Decca Phase 4
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Sonata in B Minor, S178 (1852-3) [29:20]
Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo – Symphonic Poem (1849), transcr.
(1858) Carl Tausig (1841-1871) [19:21]
Gretchen, from A Faust Symphony, S513 (1854),
transcr. (1856, 1857) Liszt [16:08]
rec. Aalborg, Denmark, February 2006. DDD
DANACORD DACOCD653 [65:16]
Just lately, Liszt has got me a bit puzzled. Forget the
famed and fêted of the Nineteenth Century opera stage – they
were small beer when compared with Liszt, the man who kick-started
entire modern concept of “stardom”, with all its attendant
adulation and excessive income. Then, quite suddenly, in
a plot twist worthy of the grandest of soap-operas, he “dropped
out”, abandoning the bright lights in favour of a quiet life
as Weimar’s Kapellmeister. However, that isn’t what’s bothering
me. After all, whatever his reasons, this radical career-change
was entirely his own choice.
So, what is my problem? Well, the more overtly challenging of his
two piano concertos and his imposing Piano Sonata are
both obviously intended as showpieces with which he could “wow” his
fans - aren’t they? I’d have thought so. In fact, that’s
exactly what I did think – until, in the wake of my
recent review of
the piano concertos et al, it finally penetrated my
thick skull that these were both written after his
sudden retreat from stardom. Now, that does puzzle
I hadn’t long been puzzled when this CD landed in my lap. Hoping for
effort-free enlightenment, I read Malcolm MacDonald’s booklet
essay. Sadly - for me - this otherwise excellent piece of
writing didn’t come up with the goods to slake my lazy aspiration.
However, by way of compensation, what it did do, admirably
well, was to nip in the bud my embryonic impression that
this CD was “a bit of a bran tub”.
To varying degrees, the genesis of each piece owes something to our
old friend, Goethe. The arrangement of Gretchen from
the Faust Symphony is too obvious to require any elaboration
from me. Perhaps a bit less blatantly obvious is Tasso,
where the inspiration of Goethe’s play Torquato Tasso is
confused with another – that of Byron’s Lament of Tasso.
Finally, and far more tenuously, there’s the case of the
formidable Sonata. MacDonald cites Claudio Arrau,
who claimed that “it was believed in Liszt’s circle that
the Sonata was a rendering of Goethe’s Faust,
Part One”. I’d take that with a pinch of salt – even at first-hand
something “believed” is pretty well apocryphal. Nevertheless,
regardless of any “belief”, if you so incline your fancy
then you can indeed interpret Liszt’s musical drama in terms
of Goethe’s scenario. For what it’s worth, I find that my
fancy inclines mostly towards Liszt’s choice of title - simply “Piano Sonata”,
although this may have something to do with my somewhat woolly
recollections of the dramatic details.
One thing, however, is absolutely certain: this is one “helluva” sonata!
I was first introduced to it by Ken Chilvers, a chap I got
to know at Huddersfield Recorded Music Society. Through his
enthralling presentations supplemented by many casual conversations,
I – and quite a few others - gradually gained the fairly
justified impression that what this “piano freak” didn’t
know about pianists and piano music just wasn’t worth knowing.
Sadly, it’s now many moons since Ken traded his mortal coil
in favour of the great Piano in the Sky. Yet, I do have something
by which to remember him, as I “inherited” a few recordings,
including a double-album (Etcetera ETC 2010) of Earl Wild
playing a pile of assorted Liszt. – this one a fully-fledged,
card-carrying “bran tub” that just happens to be spearheaded
by the Sonata.
Arguably, it is the “Parnassus” towards which Clementi’s “Gradus” guided
aspiring pianists. Listening to it, I get a distinct impression
that Liszt, the incipient High Priest of the High Romantic,
was aiming to produce nothing less than the piano virtuoso’s “Bible”.
He seemed to be taking every single limit of pianism – both
technical and expressive - and pushing it as far as the elastic
would stretch. I suppose this would be why, having at one
extreme sorely strained the player’s sinews and at the other
wrung his nerves through a mangle, Liszt then – and only then!
- confronted him with arguably the greatest test of all,
in the form of a fearsome fugue. This is music intended,
in no uncertain terms, to sort out the men from the boys,
and indeed the women from the girls.
When he made the Etcetera recording, Earl Wild was already
about 70, with a long-established and enviable reputation.
I have it
on good authority – i.e. Ken’s! – that Wild’s recording is
somewhat better than average. This opinion is confirmed by
my own ears – plus sundry other delicate and possibly unmentionable
sensibilities. Released in 1986, it’s a fairly early digital
recording – which is probably why, in spite of their having
a good, firm bottom, my LPs sound a bit brittle on top and
overall a little on the papery side. Although Wild can -
and does - play with great tenderness in the delicate passages,
in those infamous cataracts of pulverising passion he fully
lives up to his name. The overriding impression is that of
a pianist of immense authority occasionally sailing too close
to the wind. On the whole this is surely a Good Thing because,
in this of all works, nothing short of busting a gut will
If there’s any truth at all in that last comment, then this sonata
represents possibly the supreme challenge to a pianist of
Oleg Marshev’s relatively unusual disposition. As is intimated
in the booklet’s short article-cum-interview with Harriet
Smithson, it is often enough noted that Marshev’s playing,
by putting the good of the music over any virtuoso self-regard,
speaks of overriding affection for whatever he is playing.
Time and again, through evidently thoughtful circumspection,
he produces performances that, at some inevitable but usually
small cost in sheer visceral excitement, endear themselves
to the listener’s ear. To some extent, this means that he
is careful to stop at least a whisker short of busting a
gut! Maybe this gives you some idea as to why I listened
with particular interest.
The most immediate difference is that the Danacord recording
has a much more even, rounded tone. Unfortunately, this faithfully
captures not only Marshev’s playing, but also a few noises
that I wouldn’t have expected from a Steinway. One the other
hand, these – the occasional “release twang” and a few other
minor “buzzes” – are not particularly obtrusive. To be fair,
as well as sounding generally a bit on the jangly side, Wild’s
piano suffers similar symptoms. Was this just coincidence,
or had their pianos fallen prey to a mild form of the same
malaise that reputedly afflicted pianos in the wake of Beethoven’s
This thought led me to wonder whether Liszt, on top of “destruction-testing” the
player, might similarly have intended to test the instrument’s
endurance. That speculation might seem a tad cynical, but
I couldn’t help noticing that, in those infamously massive
crescendi, both Wild and Marshev come down on their keyboards
like pile drivers. At first it seemed to me that Marshev
was less hell-bent on pummelling his piano to a pulp. However,
closer comparison revealed this to be nothing more than an
artefact of his purer-toned recording. So, although it doesn’t
immediately feel like it, Marshev in fact yields little to
Wild in terms of sheer brutality.
At the other dynamic extreme, Liszt’s musical musings find even Wild’s
sensitive artistry conceding to Marshev a marginal first
place in my two-horse race. Although exemplary, the latter’s
characteristic delicacy of touch is marginally below his
extraordinary best. Thus, in what I suppose we should call
the “second subject”, he not only imbues the tender line
with some meltingly beautiful tone but also, with feather-light
fingering, “floats” the fairly busy accompaniment. So many
otherwise fabulous pianists seem to fall into the trap, when
looking after a lyrical line, of apparently letting the accompaniment
look after itself – and yet, it seems to me, if anything
it should be the other way round! There’s a similar tale
to tell when you consider articulation, where Marshev is
consistently the cleaner of the two, particularly under stress.
No matter how fast he plays, there’s hardly ever any hint
of hurrying and, no matter how forcefully he plays, few notes
ever receive more or less than their due weight.
It’s true that these are but details, but such details are also the
bricks from which the edifice of a performance is built.
It follows, I suppose, that we must also consider the mortar,
without which any performance will be as a house of cards!
Here, the mortar comes courtesy of what we might call “ethnic
background”. Wild, the Pennsylvanian, welds his Sonata very
much along traditional Western European, even (should I dare
to say this where Liszt is concerned?!) Brahmsian lines:
coordinated, integral, architectural, his eye fixed firmly
on the “long view”. Marshev - who hails from Azerbaijan – is
more volatile, more passionately involved with the “here
and now” and by comparison, we might say, keeping but half
an eye on the “long view”. In their different ways, though,
both offer balanced perspectives.
Consequently, I find it very hard to prefer one over the
other. Marshev better matches my own temperamental tastes:
I find myself
swept up by the sheer intensity of his involvement with the
musical drama. He pushes the tempi further towards their
extremes - to the extent that, although his “first movement” (track
1) playing time is practically identical to Wild’s, Marshev
reaches the latter’s “five-minute” point nearly a full minute
sooner! Extreme it may be, but there is nothing forced about
it – the music slips from Marshev’s fingers as naturally
as the blarney from an Irishman’s tongue. Yet, for all Marshev’s
lithe flexibility, there are moments when the wily Wild steals
a march on him. Take for example the culmination of the fugue:
Wild knows just when - and precisely how hard – to “punch”.
Seemingly with nothing more than a single, deft flick of
his wrist, he catapults the climax on its way. That’s a trick
that the much younger Marshev still has plenty of time to
Who better captures the spirit of the music? That depends on what
you think is the spirit of the music. Well, let’s
assume it actually does relate to the apocryphal “Mephistophelean” scenario.,
By “sailing too close to the wind”, Wild effectively expresses
the diabolic quality inherent in the feeling of “strain under
stress”. Does Marshev, by keeping a millimetre back from
the edge, therefore miss that quality? On the face of it,
yes – but then again, maybe he does catch it, in a less obvious
way. Think about it: it’s not all that long ago that such
seemingly effortless dexterity, albeit on a violin, raised
in the hearts of many good men certain sinister suspicions
of “pacts with the Devil”.
No, I haven’t forgotten the other two works on the disc, although
there is a sense in which I wouldn’t mind doing so! In my review of
Chitose Okashiro’s remarkable “Mahler First Symphony”, I
had a stab at categorising the reasons for making arrangements.
For the category of these arrangements, my first guess is “pre-gramophonic” -
the piano reduction is the Nineteenth Century equivalent
of a CD. Whilst, I imagine, the Gretchen arrangement
would have served this purpose nicely, the Tasso one
would probably have stretched the abilities of your average
household “CD player” to breaking-point – so I think I can
safely say that Tasso belongs in the “virtuoso” camp.
However, and this is the source of my reservation, in contrast
to Okashiro’s undoubtedly virtuosic Mahler, neither Gretchen nor Tasso brings
any sort of new insight – listening to them is a bit like
watching a colour film in black-and-white! Liszt himself
made two arrangements of Tasso, one for two pianos
and the other for piano duet, so it seems that even he thought
it a bit of a handful (ouch!). The solo piano arrangement
by Carl Tausig, reputedly one of Liszt’s finest pupils, is
so superbly and idiomatically crafted that, in a blind test,
I’m sure I’d be hard-pressed to distinguish “arr. Tausig” from “arr.
Liszt”. Albeit posthumously, Herr Tausig can take that as
Currently available recordings of these pieces seem to be
a bit thin on the ground – there are several recordings of Gretchen but,
as far as I can gather from a quick skim, only this one Tasso.
Not to worry, Marshev is well up to the standard he’s displayed
in the Sonata. This isn’t surprising, really, because
the two works together cover pretty similar technical and
Marshev applies himself to the musing and ever-so-mildly capricious Gretchen,
which could have been made for him, with such loving tenderness
that I became quite concerned for the purity of the maiden.
This was moderated by the considerable care exercised over
line and “shape” – Marshev is clearly well aware that over
a quarter of an hour of Lisztian doodling, bereft of Lisztian
orchestral colour, needs all the help that it can get.
All right, I’ll come clean! This is not entirely my cup of tea – I
can’t help thinking that, whilst it was being arranged, it
would have benefited from a spot of editing (ha! I should
talk!). Even so, it was well worth the wait to hear Marshev’s
exquisitely graded conclusion. As the music faded from merely
quiet to the merest whisper, even his little broken chords
remained immaculate. If you like this sort of thing, you’ll
definitely like this.
Tasso, I hardly need to say, is a different
beast entirely. It’s much more akin to the Sonata – there
are barns to be stormed, gloomy depths to be plumbed, and
ecstatic heights to be scaled. Marshev respectively storms,
plumbs and scales with great gusto. Neither is he found even
the least bit wanting when it comes to the “long view”. He
navigates convincingly - and with commendable command - from “lament” to “triumph” via
the connecting wistful “minuet”. In Marshev’s hands, played
with his almost inevitable charm, this is no passing interlude,
but a sort of “Purgatorio” linking “Inferno” to “Paradiso”.
Yes, I know that’s Dante, not Goethe, but who’s counting?
Come to think of it, if you’re going to listen to this CD in one gulp,
I’d suggest programming it in the track sequence 1-2-3-5-4 – to
my immense surprise and pleasure, I discovered that I actually
appreciated Gretchen more when it was thus enfolded,
rather than tagging along like an afterthought.
By now you’ll probably have gathered that I’m not exactly Liszt’s
biggest fan, although I hope you’ll also have gathered that
I nevertheless do enjoy a bit o’ the old Liszt, even without
a prefatory “Brahms and”. Much as I’d have liked to say otherwise,
this CD did not come as some divine revelation. Even so,
it still did me a power of good. Having, over the last few
weeks, listened to the Sonata several times, it has
gone up in my estimation by leaps and bounds. Admittedly,
Mr. Wild did have a hand in it, but this is mostly due to
Oleg Marshev, who has worked his particular magic on me,
yet again. I don’t know how he does it, but he’s made me
love what I merely admired, admire what I merely respected
and, to cap it all, he’s even managed to make the boring
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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