Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Complete Piano Works - Volume 31
Grande Fantasie de concert sur des motifs favoris de l’opéra “La Sonnambula” S393/R132 [12:41]; Réminiscences de “Norma” S394/R133 [16:39]; Réminiscences des “Puritains” de Bellini S390/R129 [20:28]; Hexaméron (Morceau de concert; Grandes variations de bravoure sure la marche des “Puritains” de Bellini) S392/R131 [19:54]
William Wolfram (piano)
rec. Glenn Gould Studio, CBC, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 25-26 May 2009
NAXOS 8.572241 [70:06]
A large part of Liszt’s very large output consisted of transcriptions of or works based on the music of others. The present disc contains only four pieces, each around a quarter of an hour long and each based on music from one of Bellini’s operas rather than a transcription of that music. Bellini was only ten years older than Liszt and his operas, especially the three represented here, were very popular in Paris in the 1830s. The first three works on this disc each makes use of several extracts from the opera in question, all commented on and embellished in a fantastical way with every kind of keyboard device imaginable by a composer with a seemingly unlimited stock of such devices. To be able to play any of them at all requires formidable virtuosity; to play them well requires, in addition, musicianship of the highest order.
William Wolfram is an American pianist whose playing I have not encountered before. He certainly has the measure of the music’s technical difficulties but I am not always convinced that he has gone far enough beyond that to be able to project Liszt’s tremendous rhetoric. Interestingly one of the works fares markedly better than the others - the Réminiscences de “Norma” - where he shows a vein of poetry and theatre otherwise in short supply, and also where he is able to control his apparent dislike of silence between phrases. In addition he displays much greater variety of tone colour and gives himself time to phrase the melodies with more singing legato. I do not know why this should be - perhaps it is simply because he has been playing it for a longer period - but it is certainly the highlight of the disc for me, and I have played it repeatedly whilst not feeling any great urge to do so with the other performances.
The final work is that great display piece, the Hexaméron, based on the baritone/bass duet “Suoni le tromba” from “I Puritani”. This originates from a charity event in Paris in 1837 when the Princess Belgiojoso invited the six most outstanding pianists in that city each to write a variation on this melody. In the event it was not completed in time, but Liszt took the variations by the other composers - Sigismund Thalberg, Johann Pixis, Henri Herz, Carl Czerny and Frédéric Chopin - and turned them into a concert work by adding his own introduction, a piano version of the theme, a variation, various transitions and a finale. The result is an exhilarating piece although, unsurprisingly given that he was able to dictate their context, Liszt is easily able to trump the results of four of the other composers, making their work seem charming but trite by comparison. The exception is Chopin whose very beautiful slow variation after the manner of a Nocturne almost steals the show.
The difficulties of the work are enormous and it is greatly to his credit that William Wolfram is able to play it so convincingly and with such control. This too I enjoyed, although I have to admit that a rehearing of Raymond Lewenthal’s recording, nearly fifty years old now, showed that it is possible to make even more of it.
In sum, one of the performances here is outstanding, one is good, and two are adequate. Whether that is sufficient to persuade you to buy the disc depends perhaps on what particularly draws you to it. The disc is well filled, well arranged and has good notes, and if you are collecting the whole of the Naxos Liszt series there is every reason to add this too.
John Sheppard 

Well filled, well arranged and good notes. If you are collecting the Naxos Liszt series there is every reason to add this too.