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]

Ever since I heard American pianist William Wolfram’s Liszt/Donizetti disc – review – I’ve been looking forward to more from this arresting virtuoso. Naxos must be pleased with the progress of this series, which has garnered such positive comments here and elsewhere. And just seconds into this Bellini album I was sure this was going to be something rather special. That same commanding keyboard presence and a fine recording – what more could one possibly want?

As Keith Anderson’s excellent liner-notes remind us, operatic paraphrases, fantasies and transcriptions were the virtuoso’s stock-in-trade. Liszt had few peers in this field, as his coruscating take on Bellini’s celebrated sleep-walker amply confirms. Artful as ever, he weaves disparate threads from the opera into a thrilling tapestry, full of drama and high contrast. After those opening staccati Wolfram goes on to phrase and shade this music with astonishing skill, complex inner details laid bare; but that’s not all that Wolfram reveals, for behind the more extrovert gestures are quiet, reflective moments essayed with grace and sensitivity. That said, it’s the free-flowing rhythms that really impress; indeed, one senses Wolfram has unwavering sight of Liszt’s longer spans, which gives his performance a wonderful, inexorable logic and shape.

Norma is Bellini’s most enduring and accomplished opera, as anyone who knows the Callas and Sutherland recordings will surely testify; and for those who like to see their opera as well there’s a DVD of Caballé’s formidable priestess, filmed at a wind-swept outdoor performance in Provence. As for Norma, hers is a classic operatic dilemma of private needs and public duties, a dichotomy that Liszt captures so well in this epic synthesis; the inner – and inward – voices are beautifully articulated, Wolfram purposeful in the valleys and surefooted on the peaks. After that final peroration all that’s missing is the roar of an appreciative audience. A thrilling performance all round.

If anything, the remaining pieces, based on Bellini’s I Puritani, are more overtly dramatic, Wolfram colouring the music with great care; indeed, it’s a mark of his skill that he does so without mannerism or artifice. Again it’s that supple, unbroken sense of rhythm that makes the most impact, a powerful well-spring from which Bellini’s melodies flow. But what I admire most about Wolfram is the easy assurance of his playing – especially welcome in such bravura pieces – and his ability to dazzle and yet remain firmly focused on musical structures. A rare talent in an age stuffed with superficial and generally self-regarding keyboard artists.

There’s really nothing to criticise here; the playing is top-notch and the recording is pretty good too. Keith Anderson’s liner-notes are a model of their kind, and one I wish more labels would emulate. Yes, the music is paramount but for me a well-written and presented booklet is not an after-thought but a perfect and necessary complement to great music-making.

Dan Morgan

The playing is top-notch and the recording is pretty good too.