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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Works for Piano and orchestra
Piano Concerto No. 1 (1832-59) [18.11]
Piano Concerto No. 2 (1839-57) [20.50]
Totentanz [15.17]
Eldar Nebolsin (piano)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 6-7 September 2007, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
NAXOS 8.570517 [54.18] 
Experience Classicsonline

If, like me, you already have recordings of these concertos then you may well feel like moving on to another page. But hold on a minute. Yes, you may have the great Richter, the blemish-free Berezovsky, the powerful Zimmerman. You may have the exact coupling by the much underrated Arnold Cohen or you may cherish, as I do, the version conducted by Giulini with Lazar Berman. However the version under review here is also worthy of your attention. Eldar Nebolsin is certainly no slouch, and as for the RLPO, well Vasily Petrenko has caused quite a stir in
Liverpool. Having heard him about three time times in the last year I can vouch for the dedicated hard work and flare that he brings to the orchestra and all who work with him. In addition the Naxos engineers have captured the Philharmonic Hall in an exceptionally powerful and realistic recording. 

Nebolsin it was, by the way, who, aptly, won the Richter Prize in 2005 for his Mozart concerto playing. Funnily enough it is his experience in Mozart that might account for the elegant and lyrical way he has with the slower music of the First Concerto. Listen for example to the first movement’s second subject and the whole of the second movement. This is not an OTT performance. Indeed the scherzo, famous for its deliberate triangle solos (!) is extremely fleet of foot; more power to the RLPO for that. This concerto caused Liszt some little difficulty. Sketched originally in 1832 when he was 21, he orchestrated it as late as 1849 with the help of Joachim Raff. It was revised in 1853 and first performed in 1855. One advantage of the work is that it weighs in at less than twenty minutes. Lazar Berman mentioned above is almost two minutes longer but this is partially thanks to Giulini’s insistence on drawing out the slower music to extremes. This new version is to the point but loses none of the work’s interest. In fact, for me it helps to hold my interest. 

The same comments could well apply to the Second Concerto. This is a more subtle work which involves itself much more in the transformation and metamorphosis of themes which combine at different tempi throughout. Divided into four movements but played without a break these brief movements include mood and tempo changes. Liszt was occupied with the Concerto from 1839 up to the time of eventual publication in 1863. It received its first airing in 1857. Recommended performances might include Kondrashin on Philips or Emanuel Ax on the Theta label. Whilst it’s true to say that Nebolsin could be dreamier in the dreamy sections and the Allegro deciso third section could have more attack, this new version is beautifully recorded. All of the details are quite clearly heard across the wide stereo picture and although not riveting, it all works as a good-quality performance which can happily take its place on any shelf. 

What is it about the Dies Irae – a fragment of plainchant from the requiem mass about the Day of Judgment - which so haunted a great many Romantic composers. Rachmaninov, another composer-pianist was obsessed with it, using it in many works for instance ‘The Isle of the Dead’ for obvious reasons, and the better known ‘Rhapsody on theme of Paganini’. Paganini, it was said, was so brilliant that he must be in league with the Devil, hence the Day of Judgment. Liszt, likewise was a man that feared judgment hence his eventual acceptance into the Roman Catholic church to appease his life-long sins - so he thought. Indeed the work may well have been inspired by a visit to Pisa with his mistress Marie d’Agoult who produced three children by him. There he saw a certainly moving Last Judgment fresco in the so-called Monumental Churchyard. It is attributed to Andrea Orcagna (c.1350). Liszt wrote what amounts to a series of five variants on the plainchant with the extraordinary virtuoso outer sections framing somewhat more reflective inner ones. It is a startling and very satisfying work. The myriad technical difficulties are awesomely overcome by Nebolsin who is, as in the concertos, always thoughtfully and ably partnered by Petrenko’s orchestra. 

All in all this is a very satisfactory combination of works. They are nicely presented with booklet notes by Keith Anderson and biographies and photos of the main protagonists. 

Gary Higginson 

see also Review by Michael Cookson 



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