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CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS

Franz LISZT (1811 – 1886)
Original Works and transcriptions
Michele Campanella (piano)
rec. 1988 – 2005
Full listing at end of review
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94147 [6 CDs: 366:10]

Experience Classicsonline

I have always had rather a soft spot for Michele Campanella playing Liszt. This dates back to when he was the pianist on the first LP of Liszt I ever bought – a Pye disc of him playing the two concertos. With the bi-centenary of Liszt’s birth looming in the Autumn this is the first of the year’s celebratory sets that I have encountered. It should be noted however, as with the bulk of Brilliant Classics releases, these are licensed re-releases although in this case the provenance is not totally clear.
Campanella’s own website lists the Wagner transcriptions as having come from the label P&P Classica which does not ring any bells - dreadful pun – sorry! - whereas the Verdi transcriptions disc is listed as ‘edizione privata’. The recordings span nearly two decades from the Transcendental Studies in 1988 to the collection of Opera transcriptions from 2005. The consistency of approach and style is admirable and certainly the passing years have yet to make any inroads into Campanella’s formidable technique. Indeed on that score alone the later disc sounds if anything even more secure than the earlier one. Further artistic consistency is displayed by the fact that the same engineer recorded all the discs – Valter Neri – and the same producer – Monica Leone – oversaw five of the six. Although Campanella boasts a wide performing repertoire it is with the music of Liszt that he has been most closely associated. The liner notes mention that he has 187 Liszt pieces in his repertoire which he has performed in public over 3000 times. Statistics like that tend to daunt me ‘dropping in’ on this repertoire; who am I to comment on the performances of someone with this music in his genes!
But comment I must. Campanella has contributed the liner-note to this set where he draws a thread between the superficially disparate 32 works in this set. He makes two basic but valid points; the subtle difference between the transcription and the paraphrase and also, but allied to that, the debate about when or where does a paraphrase/transcription stop being an offspring of the originating work and take on a life of its own. Works from the opposite extremes are on offer here; Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony [CD4] is undoubtedly a transcription albeit a very sophisticated one, at no point does it sound like anything else except the symphony performed on the piano. Conversely the Reminiscences de Don Juan [CD6 track 7], without a shadow of a doubt is a magnificent independent work. Listening to these discs it bore in on me that I prefer the paraphrase to the transcription, the latter being more functional and the former more musical. My hunch might be that Campanella feels the same too. As mentioned before, CD6 (the 2005 recording) features some of the most inspired playing in the set so is it coincidental that this disc also contains four of the biggest paraphrases presented too? But to take the discs in order. CD1 contains the complete Études d’exécution transcendante. This is the earliest recording here dating from 1988. Campanella is very fine but this does occasionally highlight a chosen performance style that can sound rather heavy-handed or clipped. That this is a choice is evident from the way that this is often juxtaposed with playing of melting lyricism and subtle rubato. Try the end of track 2 Molto Vivace as it moves into the opening of track 3 Paysage. Another example – after a truly brilliant opening flourish the main theme of Mazeppa [track 4] is presented with a rather heavy foursquare feel. Another passing thought is how in the intervening twenty three years this repertoire has become far more common both in concert and on disc. By definition Campanella is facing stiffer competition. For example hidden under the far from inspiring title and artwork of 99 Most Essential Liszt Masterpieces available as a download only for £4.99 is the BIS-sourced version by Freddie Kempf who while lacking some of Campanella’s extraordinary articulate qualities does present a more surgingly romantic interpretation. Overall though this is an impressive and compelling opening to the set.
On discs 2, 3 and 5 Campanella plays an 1892 Steinway Model D Grand, discs 1 and 4 are other Steinways of the same model and disc 6 is a Yamaha from the same collection as the ‘old’ Steinway. Clearly Campanella has given a great deal of care and thought to the sound he requires from his instruments. As mentioned earlier the way in which these discs have been engineered as well as the piano’s timbre as caught by the microphones is remarkably consistent. I find the lower range of the Steinways a fraction clangorous but that is a matter of taste rather than fault.
Discs 2 and3 form a logical pair consisting of several – but not all – of Liszt’s Wagner transcriptions. Campanella in his note points out the close musical and personal ties between the two composers and that these works reflect their mutual influence. The later the work of both composers the more interesting as music it becomes. Hence the Phantasiestück on themes from Rienzi, [CD 2 track 1] impressive though it is as an exercise in virtuosity and dispatched as such by Campanella engages me little on any other level. Highlights are a beautifully controlled and voiced Abendstern from Tannhäuser [CD 2 track 2] the Liebestod and Parsifal Feierlicher Marsch zum beiligen Graal [CD 3 tracks 6 and 7] although the Tristan excerpt does suffer from the clanging piano when the dynamic is high.
Disc 4 brought me back to earth with a bump. In this most pictorial of all Beethoven’s works the absence of the orchestra is sorely felt for all Liszt’s pianistic trickery. But the main problem is Campanella’s interpretation. Elsewhere I will defer to his insight and understanding but this sounds plain wrong. And plain is the word I return to; too much of this performance sounds at best perfunctory. The worst passage is a second movement Andante molto moto “By the Brook” [my highlighting] which simply becomes becalmed. Most versions whether orchestral or pianistic seem to come in the wide range of 9 to 12 minutes. Campanella is an unbelievable 18:36 which neither he nor the music - let alone the transcription - can sustain. This is one of those head-scratching-how-can-you-think-this-works moments. This inertia carries on into the third movement “merry-making” which contains the worst example in the set of the plodding squareness that can affect Campanella’s playing. This is not only slow as far as tempo is concerned but lacking in any kind of grace, wit or humour. After a bludgeoning storm the final hymn has an initial lyricism - and ‘right’ tempo - missing earlier but the climaxes hector rather than inspire – in part due to the transcription itself which burdens the player with all but impossible fistfuls of notes.
Fortunately the final two discs of this set return to much more pleasurable territory. Perhaps Campanella is more naturally at ease with the operatic origins of these Verdi paraphrases but they immediately feel much more ‘right’ than the preceding Beethoven. Highlights here are a stormily troubled Miserere from Il trovatore, displaying Campanella’s great gift for carefully balancing leading lines and subsidiary material within complex textures. There’s also a gently thoughtful Agnus Dei from the Requiem – one of the real gems in the whole set and a version I had never heard - and the Rigoletto paraphrase notable for the playful excess of its treatment of some of these favourite melodies. Again, I am perplexed by the playful perfection of Campanella’s performance here as opposed to the apparent insensitivity elsewhere. Clearly these are artistic choices to which I am not fully attuned. I did note though that the return to the 1892 Steinway brings a specific tonal quality that others might enjoy more than I. As a programme in itself disc 6 is the most wholly satisfying of the set. It finds Campanella in consistently impressive form playing an instrument best suited – to my ears at least – to music of this range of dynamic and tonal colour. Possibly the breadth of composers brought together from Mozart to Mendelssohn and Gounod gives Liszt a little more range to work with. I like the quirky jauntiness that Campanella finds in the opening paraphrase on the famous Mendelssohn Wedding March. However this is very much Liszt’s conception as can be gleaned in the delicate arpeggiating accompaniment. This soon builds into a variation more predictably grandiose but the impression given is more light-hearted than one often associates with Liszt. Then in a piece of outrageous arranging he manages to combine elements of the scherzo material from the overture with the original wedding march. I have a total weakness for this kind of musical excess and Campanella sounds in his element too. Indeed the whole disc is a triumph and possibly good enough to consider buying the set on its strengths alone – since six discs at Brilliants Classics prices are near enough one and a bit full price discs. As mentioned at the start of the review the Réminiscences de Don Juan is little short of stunning.
This is a tricky set to know quite how to position within a competitive marketplace. Admirers of Michele Campanella need not hesitate unless they will be duplicating the earlier releases of the same discs. For general Liszt collectors this is likely to involve some degree of duplication. With the exception of the performances on the final disc – which are uniformly superb – and the Beethoven disc – which should be avoided – these are all fine and individual performances but ones that are unlikely to replace many favourites in an existing collection. Presentation is in typical Brilliant Classics mode – a box with each disc in its own cardboard slip which lists repertoire and basic recording information. The box does benefit from a rather brief but interesting new liner note written by the pianist. The main value of this box is the way it documents a very fine musician’s continuing exploration of the works of one of the great pianist-composers.
Nick Barnard


Full listing
CD 1:
Études d’exécution transcendante (1852) [66:39]
rec. Teatro Comunale Narni, Umbria, Italy, September 1988
CD 2: Wagner Transcriptions I [55:38]
Phantasiestük S439 on themes from Rienzi [8:10]
O, du mein holder Abendstern (Tannhaüser – Act 1) S444 [7:20]
Entry of the Guests (Tannhaüser – Act 3) S445 No.1 [9:49]
Walhall S449 on themes from Der Ring des Nibelungen [6:25]
Lieder aus der Musik von Eduard Lassen zu Hebbels Nibelungen [10:59]
Ballade S441 (Der fliegende Holländer) [5:39]
Spinnerlied S440 (Der fliegende Holländer) [6:32]
rec. Teatro dell’Aquila Fermo Italy, March 2000 and September 2001
CD 3: Wagner Transcriptions II [52:51]
Elsas Brautzug zum Münster S445 No.2 (Lohengrin) [8:48]
Elsas Traum S446 No.2 (Lohengrin) [4:04]
Lohengrins Verweis an Elsa S446 No.3 (Lohengrin) [3:50]
Festspiel und Brautlied S446 No.1 (Lohengrin) [8:59]
Am stillen Herd S448 (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) [9:24]
Isolde Liebestod S447 [7:35]
Feierlicher Marsch zum heiligen Graal S450 (Parsifal) [9:37]
rec. Teatro dell’Aquila Fermo Italy, March 2000 and September 2001
CD 4: Beethoven Transcriptions [51:32]
Symphony No.6 in F Op.68 ‘Pastorale’ S464
rec. Teatro dell’Aquila Fermo Italy, January 2003
CD 5: Verdi Transcriptions [63:54]
Paraphrase de Concert S431a (or S432) (Ernani) [8:24]
Salve Maria S431 (Jerusalem) [4:56]
Miserere (Il trovatore) [8:10]
Paraphrase de concert S434 (Rigoletto) [7:10]
Coro di festa e Marcia funebre S435 (Don Carlos) [7:23]
Agnus Dei S437 (Messa di Requiem) [4:49]
Réminiscences de Boccanegra S438 [11:22]
Danza sacra e duetto finale S436 [Aida] [10:57]
rec. Teatro dell’Aquila Fermo Italy, June 2001
CD 6: Opera Transcriptions [75:36]
Concert paraphrase S410 on the Wedding March and Dance of the Elves from ‘A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream’ (Mendelssohn) [10:42]
Les Adieux S409 – Rêverie on a theme from ‘Roméo et Juliette’ (Gounod) [9:42]
La Sonnambula – Grande Fantasie de Concert S627 (Bellini) [15:05]
Les Sabéenness S408 – Berceuse from ‘La Reine de Saba’ (Gounod) [5:52]
Valse S407 from ‘Faust’ (Gounod) [10:58]
Transcription brillante S456 of the Valse d’Adèle for the left hand (Géza Zichy, Count Vasony-Keö) [3:51]
Réminiscences de Don Juan S418 (Mozart) [18:44]
rec. Teatro dell’Aquila Fermo Italy, September 2005






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