Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Étude d’exécution transcendante No.11 (1852) [12:15]
Légende No.1 (1862) [16:00]
Légende No.2 (1862) [11:00]
Ave Maria (1862) [7:32]
Hungarian Rhapsody No.12 (1847) [13:06]
Étude d’exécution transcendante No.7 (1852) [8:15]
Pater Noster (1846) [5:38]
Martin Berkofsky (piano)
rec. 14-16 September 2010, Chiesa di Sant’Monticello di Lonigo, Vincenza, Italy.
ARTS 47757-8 [78:27]
As the ‘Visions’ title of this release suggests, this programme has been selected for the ‘mystic contemplation’ element of Liszt’s output for the piano rather than the revolutionary technical virtuosity aspects of his work. That isn’t to say that the repertoire here isn’t demanding enough, and there is plenty of remarkable pianism on show here, especially in the excesses of the Légende No.2, which takes the ‘vision’ into realms of improbable ecstasy. The booklet notes have been written by Roberto Prosseda who is Artistic coordinator of Donatori di Musica, an organisation which provides musical performances for hospitals free of charge. Martin Berkofsky has become closely involved with this organisation, and has shown his gratitude for being helped to survive after a serious motorcycle accident and a tumour, and the Arts label is donating 1000 copies of this CD to their cause.
These recordings are Berkovsky’s personal response to this composer: “Liszt wrote for the universe … great music inspires one to higher purpose because it itself is inspired from a higher purpose and vision.” The results can on occasion be a little idiosyncratic, but to my ears none the worse for being an exploration of the spiritual. What this often equates with is an exploration of sonority, and a seeking of some of the extra meaning Liszt seeks to express in titles such as St. François d’Assise, La predication aux oiseaux. Liszt’s interpretation of birdsong is more objective and pianistically stylised to, say, Messiaen, but Berkofsky’s quietly reflective view of the work is indeed a meditation, and filled with a kind of natural peace and an aura of affection. The only piece where I at first felt a little less comfortable with this approach was the Hungarian Rhapsody No.12, where the teasing of tempi might arguably over distort the Czardas/dance character of the music. Berkofsky takes a spacious 13 minutes over the work, but I soon warmed to his sense of suspense and line, which makes the young Evgeny Kissin sound relatively crowded at around 10 minutes on YouTube. Berkofsky is still pretty extreme and dramatic in those racy passages of octaves for instance, which is what you would want. He lingers more in the spaces in between however, something which the mighty sustaining quality of the piano here allows him to do - this without losing too much playfulness in the lighter material, which nonetheless acquires a rather nostalgic, wistful quality.
The piano used here is a Borgato model L282, an Italian make less familiar than many, but on the showing here a firm capable of creating remarkably fine instruments. They are remarkable in making pianos with pedal-boards, which means having the equivalent of another piano on the floor under your concert grand, the notes worked with the feet like an organ. Berkofsky performs on a more conventional instrument, but the low notes on this audiophile recording are enough to shake up your glands good and proper. The acoustic is nicely resonant without disturbing clarity, and the SACD surround effect creates a satisfyingly 3D sonic effect, the position of the piano snapping into remarkable focus, and with plenty of air around the instrument helping with a fine sense of atmosphere and occasion.
Martin Berkofsky ends his recital with an awesome threesome. Sancta Dorothea is beautifully serene and reflective, almost minimal in Arvo Pärt Spiegel im Spiegel mode. This is followed by the eponymous ‘Vision’ Étude d’exécution transcendante No.7, played with a keen sense of the poetic, and as much impact aurally as the visual equivalent in one of those biblical scenes painted by John Martin. The booklet notes tell us that Berkofsky plays Liszt’s Pater Noster every day when he wakes up - ‘a veritable prayer in music’.
I’ve found my fascination with Liszt growing gradually over the years, a process connected with education - learning more about the piano and its capabilities as an expressive instrument, but also in the sheer range of Liszt’s output as a composer. This is one of those recordings which extends such a curve of lifelong-learning, with performances which are utterly personal and ‘visionary’ in character. In other words, this may not be a reference as such for the pieces in this programme, but only in the same way as no other recording of Liszt can ever be entirely definitive - another reason for not loading this review with heaps of comparisons. For its technical qualities both as a recording and a performance I know this is a disc I will want to have around for a long time, and without going all dewy-eyed I can also vouch for the ‘spiritual’ atmosphere the playing creates. If you seek a new, intelligent and mature view on Liszt, then this is a remarkable place to continue your journey.
A recording with great atmosphere and personal integrity.