Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Wild and Crazy
Full Contents List at end of review
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 9526 [79:21 + 77:43]
There was a time I would have run a mile from a compilation like this, but there is something fascinating about having a big heap of sixteen or so great pianists on a couple of CDs stuffed to the brim with some of the most extravagant music ever written for the piano. Despite the implications of the ‘Wild and Crazy’ title and the sales blurb, “a special celebration of his wild and crazy side from an array of great pianists dazzling virtuosity, extreme harmonies and textures a helter-skelter ride through his piano oeuvre, with just the occasional moment of relaxation”, Liszt knew what he was doing, and even the wildest and craziest of the works here is controlled in structure and content, and you can bet almost all of the performers are fully in control as well.
Yes, even if like me you used to think of Liszt as a kind of pianistic maniac – something the title of this compilation seems determined to propagate – then think again. There are indeed plenty of ‘fireworks’ along the way, but just to pick out a few highlights, the Hungarian Rhapsody No.2, fulsomely recorded in its arrangement by Vladimir Horowitz, is given every chance to show its lyrical and sensitive side through the sometimes controversial hands of Lang Lang. Here he works well with the contrasts of texture and magical colours Liszt implies, and even the manic fast bits sound more fluid and witty than crazy – until all hell breaks loose of course, but that’s what we’re here for after all.
With such a wide variety of recordings you might expect this mixed bag to be a bit uneven, but even the most elderly of the studio takes sound fresh as a daisy, and I would challenge anyone to pick out the analogue from the digital in a blind test. Willem Kempff’s Il Penseroso is warmly philosophical, ad well programmed between the aforementioned Hungarian Rhapsody and that from Martha Argerich, on blistering good form with No.6. There are a few live recordings, but the variance in background noise is a source of contrast in its own right and keeps one alert, such as in Vladimir Horowitz’s Soirées de Vienne, which is turbulent and elegant by turns. Each CD has one work with orchestral accompaniment; that on CD 1 the doom-laden Totentanz in a classic rendition with Jorge Bolet and the LSO, amusingly followed by Liszt’s version of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March played with sparkle but in a rather dry acoustic by Egon Petri.
CD 2 opens with another stalwart recording, that of Shura Cherkassky with Herbert von Karajan in the Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Tunes. It’s interesting to hear how the character of the Berlin Phil has changed since this superb 1961 rendition, with more pungent winds and a touch of East European vibrato in the horns and oboes, sadly homogenised out of existence today. Yundi Li is a new name to me, a young Chinese pianist whose touch is light and fragrant in the Liebeslied, crystalline in La campanella. Daniel Barenboim pops up a few times in this collection, and excellent performances such as that in the Concert Paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto remind one of what a capable Liszt performer he was – perhaps not the most poetic, but always dynamic and involving. Not wishing to gloss over notable performances, but there aren’t any real duds amongst these recordings, and the only truly suspect recording is that with Sviatoslav Richter, whose live Feux Follets sounds as if it’s being heard through a rather long cardboard tube. There’s just time to mention some brand new recordings which you won’t find anywhere else on CD: Jean-Rodolphe Kars’s 1968 Decca recordings are a little lacking in gloss, but his Nuages gris and La lugubre gondola No.1 are both moodily fascinating, and the Fantasy on Themes from Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” is again rather dryly recorded but well played by Egon Petri. Daniel Barenboim rounds the whole thing off with the meditative Consolation No.1.
These are two very well-filled discs, and very good value at bargain price. The booklet is a bit strange, with a catechism of capsule anecdotes about the composer seemingly designed for short attention-span consumers. It is not recommended that players attempt to imitate the posture of the strange silhouetted figure in the cover illustration. There are nice pictures of the pianists inside though, and a handy date line of key facts in Liszt’s life. If you like Liszt and you’re a collector of fine pianists then this is an admirable collection to have around. It’s the sort of catch-all release which you can take on holiday and threaten to put on the car stereo if the kids are playing up, and put on very loud when driving to the shops on your own. Yes, we’ll be quaking under tall and wobbly heaps of ‘Liszt 200 Anniversary’ releases this year, but as far as compilations go this one might well prove to be one of the better ones.
A very decent collection, despite the title.
Mephisto Waltz No.1, S.514 - Vladimir Ashkenazy
Liebestraum No.3 in A flat, S.541 No.3 – Daniel Barenboim
Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 in C sharp minor, S.244 - Arr. Vladimir Horowitz - Lang Lang
Années de pèlerinage: 2ème année: Italie, S.161 - 2. Il Penseroso (Lento) - Wilhelm Kempff
Hungarian Rhapsody No.6 in D flat, S.244 - Martha Argerich
10 Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173 - No. 7 Funérailles - Mikhail Pletnev
Soirées de Vienne: 9 Valses-Caprices after Schubert - Vladimir Horowitz
Totentanz, S.126. Paraphrase on "Dies Irae"for piano and orchestra - Jorge Bolet with the London Symphony Orchestra/Iván Fischer
Paraphrase on "Wedding March" and "Elfin Chorus" from Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" – Egon Petri
Fantasia on Hungarian Folk tunes, S.123 - Shura Cherkassky with the Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
Widmung, S.566 after Schumann - Yundi Li
Grandes etudes da Paganini, S141 - No. 3 in G sharp minor ("La Campanella") - Yundi Li
Concert Paraphrase on Verdi's opera Rigoletto, S.434 – Daniel Barenboim
Etudes de Concert, S.145 - No.1 Waldesrauschen - Géza Anda
Etudes de Concert, S.145 - No.2 Gnomenreigen - Mikhail Pletnev
12 Etudes d'exécution transcendante, S.139 - No.5 Feux follets (Allegretto) - Sviatoslav Richter
Années de pèlerinage: 3ème année, S.163 - 4. Les jeux d'eau à la Villa d'Este - Zoltán Kocsis
12 Etudes d'exécution transcendante, S.139 - No.8 Wilde Jagd (Presto furioso) - Alice Sara Ott
Nuages gris, S.199 - Jean-Rodolphe Kars
La Lugubre Gondola, S.200 No.1 - Jean-Rodolphe Kars
Fantasy on Themes from Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”, S.697 - edited and completed by F. Busoni – Egon Petri
6 Consolations, S. 172 - No. 1 in E major (Andante con moto) - Daniel Barenboim