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Franz  LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat, S.124 (1849) [19:06]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in A, S. 125 (1849) [21:48]
Totentanz, S. 126 (1849) [15:58]
Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Themes, S. 123 [15:14]
Oleg Marshev (piano)
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra/Matthias Aeschbacher
rec. Aalborg, February 2006

Once past the soloist's unvaried thumping at the start - and what was that all about? - the first-rate Totentanz is the best thing on this program. In this work, Liszt alters his customary harmonic syntax: instead of conventionally stringing together diminished seventh chords to evoke harmonic rootlessness, the composer uses linear motion in the manner of Gabriel Fauré to form both diatonic and chromatic seventh chords, generating in the process a subtler harmonic tension. The result, it must be said, sounds nothing like Fauré. Oleg Marshev, whose technical strength lies in combining rippling fluency with tonal weight, finds ways to shape and color these more complex progressions, even when they're divided between the hands in coruscating, cadenza-like chords. With solid, responsive, orchestral support, the resulting performance is unusually effective, nuanced in expression where most others take their ponderous cue from the Dies Irae motif.

The Hungarian Fantasy, dominated by sturdy, folk-like chordal progressions, lies at the opposite end of the harmonic spectrum. Accordingly, Marshev projects the tunes boldly and straightforwardly, without letting his pingy articulation of individual notes impede the music's long, arching lines. The flaccid trumpet fanfares beginning at 3:48 - rhythmically secure, accurately tuned, but utterly devoid of impulse - constitute the only mild flaw. 

The two concertos receive perfectly good performances in which none of the pieces fall into place as neatly. In the First Concerto, the orchestral contribution is frequently thoughtful and beautiful, but suffers from excessive politeness at key moments. The strings' opening unison is clean but reined-in; even the trombone outburst in the coda-equivalent - at 0:28 of track 4 - sounds uncommonly well-mannered. I'd not, offhand, thought of Liszt as particularly well-served by restraint. Marshev offers striking insights and some technical accomplishment - the arpeggios at the end of the "first movement" ripple beguilingly; the Quasi adagio has a nice impulsive rubato. But the high trills sound glassy, as do the strained melodic octaves in that Quasi adagio, which don't expand into the climax. Octaves in general seem to be a sticking point for the soloist here: the big, deep ones in track 3, while full-bodied, are careful - though a similar passage beginning at 7:08 in Totentanz is strong and assured.

The Second Concerto is rather better, not least because of gorgeous contributions from the woodwind and cello principals - does any other standard concerto offers the orchestral soloists such expressive scope? The brass choir registers nicely in the Allegro agitato assai, though the lead trumpet again sounds flatly matter-of-fact playing on his own. Marshev's playing is crisply defined and articulate, as elsewhere, yet he allows some phrases - his offhand answer to the Allegro moderato's melting cello solo, for example - to go for nothing. His balletic lightness in the finale, however, offers some compensation.

Standard-rep recommendations are difficult in the digital age: rarely will all the performances on a 70-minutes disc be of sufficiently high quality to equal or surpass all distinguished predecessors - Richter's magisterial Second Concerto (Philips), for example, has not lately been seriously challenged, here or elsewhere. I did enjoy the Danacord program overall, and if the shorter pieces are your primary interest, you'll find much to savor here. Individual sections are separately tracked in the concertos, by the way.

Stephen Francis Vasta

see also Review by Paul Serotsky 


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