Liszt’s piano music
is surely his greatest achievement, so it’s gratifying that
Naxos have pressed ahead with their survey, now at Volume 27.
It’s not the only such collection – Leslie Howard blazed the
trail with his 94-disc set for Hyperion – nor is it all essayed
by a single pianist. That said, the Naxos discs are at budget
price, which will always tempt collectors looking for quality
music-making at a modest price.
modest about the pianistic talents of William Wolfram, whose
earlier contribution to this series – Volume 20 – garnered much
praise from my colleagues Colin Clarke and Michael Cookson (review).
Here he tackles the Donizetti arrangements, just one spur of
Liszt’s opera-inspired output that included Auber, Bellini,
Meyerbeer, Rossini, Verdi and Wagner.
has a commanding keyboard presence. In Lucia et Parisina
one marvels at the ease with which he dashes off this extravagant
music, while in the earlier Réminiscences de Lucrezia Borgia
he builds the tension at the beginning of the Act II trio very
well indeed. But he also manages to sound poetic in the quieter,
more lyrical moments – even if there aren’t many of those in
The piano sound
is impressive, wide-ranging and clear without being over-bright
in the runs and roulades of Chanson a Boire or unfocused in
the magisterial chords that bring the Borgia trio to
a close. The aural perspective is a touch shallow but then a
more immediate sound probably suits this repertoire.
Which is a good
time to issue a health warning. Extraordinary as Wolfram’s playing
undoubtedly is, the high decibel count is apt to become tiring
after a while. Indeed, the sustained avalanche of sound in the
closing moments of the Borgia piece might have you reaching
for the pause button or switching off altogether.
But not for long.
The Andante final – taken from the Act II sextet of Lucia
– has the usual brilliance plus eloquence and lyricism. This
is simply spellbinding music and Wolfram certainly has the magician’s
touch when it comes to conjuring up a theatrical atmosphere.
That is especially true of the funeral march, which captures
all the gloom and despair of Lucy’s death with its lowering
chords and implacable rhythms. Wolfram’s wizardry extends to
clarity and articulation, notably in Liszt’s juxtaposition of
‘Esci, fuggi’ from Act II and Edgar’s Act III heart-wrencher
'Tu che a Dio spiegasti l'ali'. In a concert hall an electric
performance like this would surely have the audience leaping
to their feet as one.
of Ferdinand’s cavatina ‘Spirto gentil’ from La favorite,
itself based on Wagner’s piano transcription of the opera, is
full of Italianate drama and pathos. As always Wolfram has an
unerring feel for the dramatic peaks and valleys of this music;
more than that he spins some long, singing lines as well. There
is a real emotional tug to this performance that is every bit
as gripping as one in the theatre.
the funeral march from Donizetti’s last opera, Dom Sebastien,
with a craggy grandeur – cue massive, rough-hewn chords that
call for more power than subtlety. But then there’s nothing
reticent about this music, and the recorded balance reinforces
that point. Perhaps Naxos could have planned this survey rather
differently – as Hyperion have done – and programmed a mix of
composers on this disc, rather than concentrate on one.
That minor caveat
aside I can only endorse the positive comments about Wolfram’s
playing – it really is that good. Collectors who already have
the Howard performances may feel those are unassailable, but
if it’s value and good music-making you’re after this Naxos
release is self recommending.