Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat, S124* [17:27]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in A, S125** [19:38]
Hungarian Rhapsody, S244/6 in D-flat [6:21]
Valse oubliée No. 1 in F-sharp, S215 [2:53]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856) Romance in F-sharp, Op. 28/2 [3:10]
Novelette in F, Op. 21/1 [5:00]
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946) El sombrero de tres picos: Danza del molinero (Miller’s Dance) (farruca) [3:42]
Franz LISZT Sonetto 104 del Petrarca (Années de pèlerinage II, S161/5) [5:59]
David GUION (1892-1981) The Harmonica Player [1:14]
Byron Janis (piano)
Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin*
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Gennadi Rozhdestvensky**
rec. Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Moscow, June 1962 (Concertos, Schumann, Falla and Guion); Fine Recording Studios, New York, October 1961 (shorter Liszt pieces). ADD
NEWTON CLASSICS 8802058 [63:28]

These recordings have already been available, identically coupled, on CD (Mercury 432 002 – still available as a CDR from Previously the two Liszt Concertos alone had surfaced on different incarnations of Philips’ mid-price LP labels, a testimony to their continuing popularity. They reappear now on my first experience of the Newton label, an enterprising project to rescue mostly Universal left-overs, many of which are certainly much more than mere tasty morsels, especially the Grieg and Schumann Piano Concertos performed by Stephen Kovacevich and Sir Colin Davis (8802019) and the King’s College Cambridge/Cleobury recordings of Tallis (8802002 – see review).

These performances of the Liszt Concertos are also available on a super-budget box set (Byron Janis: The Legendary Concerto Recordings, Brilliant Classics 9182, 4 CDs for around £11). That whole box can be purchased for little more than this Newton CD. MWI Classical Editor Rob Barnett made it his Bargain of the Month as recently as October, 2010, and I’ll start by quoting what he wrote then:

The fourth and final disc offers the meretricious yet sentimentally entertaining two Liszt concertos which Janis despatches with all the élan and tireless confidence you would expect. The Second Piano Concerto is a finer work with more musical substance and it again shines in the hands of Janis and Rozhdestvensky whether in elfin display, thunderous triumph or melancholy swoon. The recording in this case brings out a certain shrillness in the more demonstrative movements. (See full review).

Janis (né Yankevitch) set down these recordings after taking Moscow by storm. The Mercury team was invited to Russia to make the Concerto recordings – a sensible move, as anyone who has suffered hearing a Melodiya LP of this vintage will know – and they are certainly still worth having, with a combination of technical bravura – never indulged for its own sake; there’s certainly no hint of the hob-nail boot style of playing – and sensitivity to the music. The finale of the First Concerto trips along particularly winsomely and winningly.

Only one recording of about the same vintage and at around the same price merits even greater consideration: Sviatoslav Richter and the London Symphony Orchestra, with Kyrill Kondrashin again at the helm. (Philips 464 7102, now coupled with three Beethoven Piano Sonatas). Christopher Howell described these as ‘among the greatest performances these concertos have ever had’ – see review.

I thought the sound on Newton at the opening of the First Concerto a trifle hollow, but the ear soon adjusts. Even more than Rob Barnett, I noted the shrillness in the Newton recording of the Second Concerto, especially from the brass – a degree of glare and a kazoo-like tone which is quite disagreeable at times and could surely have been tamed. Otherwise, everything here reminds the listener of the high quality that Mercury’s recording engineers were achieving as long ago as 1961. In any event, the Richter recordings, also dating from 1961, are far from unblemished, with some over-close miking in evidence, though they are mercifully free from the nasal brass.

The short pieces which conclude the CD serve to make it better value than is often the case, with the two Liszt Concertos making a very short programme by today’s standards, even with Totentanz added, the only coupling on some recordings. Here, too, Janis proves that he is capable of both virtuosity and sensitivity, and these pieces are well recorded. Julian Haylock in the notes describes all but the three shorter Liszt pieces, recorded in New York the previous October, as emanating from relaxation sessions between Concerto takes, and they do offer a sense of the calm after the storm. They also, however, make for something of an anti-climax after the fireworks of the Concertos and I could have wished them to be placed earlier. It is possible to re-order the tracks when you play them, but it’s a nuisance to have to do so, and some of the best CD players don’t provide the facility.

The notes are very good, especially as Julian Haylock is particularly perceptive in his description of the virtues of Janis’s playing.

Richter would be my preference – as virtuosic as Janis and a touch more sensitive where it matters – but it’s close enough for the choice of coupling to be the deciding factor. I must admit to finding Richter’s Beethoven Sonatas more substantial and more appealing, but many listeners may think otherwise.

The most appropriate coupling of all comes from Louis Lortie, with the Hague Residentie Orchestra and George Pehlivanian, as part of his mid-price 3-CD set for Chandos (CHAN10371X). The second CD, coupling Concertos 1 and 2, Totentanz, and the reconstructed Concerto No.3 can’t be purchased separately – it’s listed as ‘out of stock’ on disc – but it can be downloaded on its own as CHAN9918, with the Concerto Pathétique rather than Totentanz, from in mp3 (£7.99) or lossless sound (£9.99). The first and third CDs are discs 17 and 19 of Brilliant Classics’ ‘A Liszt Portrait’ (94215). Lortie is less virtuosic than Janis or Richter, but satisfyingly sensitive – it took me a while to appreciate the qualities of this version – and the recording is excellent, though it needs to be played at a slightly higher level than usual.

You may also wish to consider the Beulah Extra downloads of Samson François’s 1960 recordings of the two Liszt Concertos – No.1 on 1BX108 and No.2 on 2BX108 – which I recommended in my February 2011 Download Roundup. The price has since risen to £1.25 each, but that’s still excellent value. It’s good to have such a choice of first-class versions and to note, when all is said and done, that the Janis reissue is still so competitive.

Brian Wilson

Only Richter from the same vintage has an edge on these recordings.