Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Concerto No.2 in A major, S.125 (1839-40, rev. 1849, 1861) [21:44]
Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat major, S.124 (1830-49, rev. 1853, 1856) [19:24]
Encores: Consolation No.3 in D flat major, S.172/3 [4:37]; Valse oubliée in F sharp major, S.215/1 [3:58]
Daniel Barenboim (piano)
Staatskapelle Berlin/Pierre Boulez
rec. live, Ruhr Piano Festival, 9-10 June 2011, Philharmonie (Alfried Krupp Saal), Essen, Germany.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 9521 [49:49]
These recordings derive from the Ruhr Piano Festival sharing the same concert with Wagner’s Faust Overture and the Siegfried Idyll; scores not included on this release. With the combined age of 155 years Barenboim and Boulez bring incomparable experience and musicianship to the rostrum. With these two scores Boulez embarked on “entirely new territory” but it certainly surprised me to learn that this is Barenboim’s first recording of the Liszt Concertos. Barenboim explains, “I wanted to present both concertos together as they are so different. Although less frequently played than the first, the second concerto is no less a masterpiece.”
Liszt made the first sketches for his Piano Concerto No.1 in 1830, undertaking serious work in Rome around 1839-40. He seems to have completed it around 1849, making revisions in 1853 and more adjustments again in 1856. Dedicated to the piano virtuoso and composer Henry Litolff (review review) it would be hard to imagine more eminent performers at its 1855 première at the Ducal Palace in Weimar when the composer was soloist under the baton of Hector Berlioz. Following its introduction music critic Eduard Hanslick described the score acerbically as the “Triangle Concerto” owing to the prominent triangle part in the third movement. It seems that an idea to give the score the title Grande Fantaisie symphonique was rejected. Cast in four movements and unfolding in a single continuous span the E flat major concerto is now firmly established as warhorse of the repertoire.
Of special note in the First Concerto is Barenboim’s playing of the second movement Quasi adagio. It is so gloriously tender that at times it feels like a lullaby. Suddenly altering character the music becomes angry and impatient with Barenboim shifting the mood swiftly again this time to music of joyous optimism. Some will be fine with it and others not so but the sound of the ‘infamous’ triangle in the Allegretto vivace is as noticeable as I have heard. This is light-hearted music that just gallops along without a care in the world with any hazards along the way easily negotiated. With occasional bouts of seriousness in the buoyant and jaunty writing of the final movement Barenboim’s playing is spirited and highly assured. To conclude I loved the boisterousness of the Presto. It generates terrific excitement.
Liszt began composing his Piano Concerto No.2 in 1839 in Rome, revising the score on at least two occasions in 1849 and in 1861. The first performance was given with Liszt conducting his pupil Hans Bronsart (whose own concerto can be heard on VoxBox CDX 5067) as soloist at Weimar in 1857. To highlight the symphonic nature of the score it was described in the manuscript as a “concerto symphonique”. Designed in one single continuous movement it is divided into six sections that are connected by Liszt’s use of the process of “thematic transformation”. With Barenboim and Boulez I especially enjoyed the stormy feel and brisk tempo of the opening movement Adagio sostenuto assai combining to create real drama. The Allegro agitato assai builds to a compelling climax and I loved the windswept quality of the Allegro deciso with its keen forward momentum and muscularity. Most remarkable of all is the explosive power unleashed in the Marziale un poco meno allegro; as potent as one is likely to hear.
Throughout these commanding accounts I was immediately struck by the power and drama of the playing – real edge of the seat stuff. The pianism is strong, assured and often exhilarating. Boulez and the orchestra come across as highly responsive partners. Barenboim’s playing never feels self-conscious and he allows everything to unfold with a sense of unforced naturalness. This is a performance that certainly doesn’t linger. Brisk speeds are preferred and that feel totally appropriate. After live performances such as these it is no surprise that the spellbound audience greets the players with tremendous applause. Barenboim plays the two encores keenly but they will mean a lot more to those who were present.
Over the years I have come across a large number of recordings of the Liszt Piano Concertos. In my view the finest overall are the marvellously exhilarating and highly confident accounts from Krystian Zimerman and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa. Zimerman recorded these at the Symphony Hall, Boston in 1987 with warm and clear digital sound (Deutsche Grammophon 423 571-2 c/w Totentanz). Zimerman’s accounts are probably the best known and most critically acclaimed of all the available recordings. They certainly proved a revelation to me. I have since acquired numerous other versions but Zimerman has set the bar extremely high. Consequently, I would not look elsewhere than this marvellously gratifying recording with Zimerman providing poetry in the slow movements and an astonishing degree of excitement in Allegros. Although there is very little between them I just prefer the excellence of the Zimerman/Ozawa studio recording with the added advantage of the Totentanz to these thrilling 2011 live accounts from Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin under Boulez. The perfect scenario would be to own both discs.
There is much to admire in the excellently performed accounts of the Liszt Piano Concertos from Sviatoslav Richter and the LSO under Kirill Kondrashin on Philips Classics Solo 446 200-2 (c/w Liszt Piano Sonata). Richter recorded the two Piano Concertos in London in 1961 for Philips with the Mercury Living Presence team. The recordings have been re-mastered from the original three-track master tapes by the original Mercury producer, the legendary Wilma Cozart Fine. Although the sound is more than acceptable it doesn’t compare well with many of the modern digital recordings. Another splendid set is from Jean-Yves Thibaudet with the Montréal Symphony Orchestra under Charles Dutoit from Montreal in 1990 on Australian Decca Eloquence 442 8833 (c/w Totentanz). Despite some wonderfully stylish and thoughtful playing Thibaudet cannot quite match the sheer scale of the dramatic contrasts provided by Zimerman.
One of the lesser known recordings that has given me much enjoyment is played with assured passion by Arnaldo Cohen with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra under John Neschling. Cohen recorded the works in 2005 at São Paulo, Brazil on BIS-SACD-1530 (c/w Totentanz). Recently reissued from the Deutsche Grammophon vaults I admire the power and drama of the 1952 Berlin recordings played by Andor Földes and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Leopold Ludwig. Although showing signs of its age the near sixty year old recording as been successfully re-mastered leaving an acceptable overall sound on Guild Historical GHCD 2381 (c/w Les Préludes Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Leopold Ludwig and Hungaria Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Ferdinand Leitner).
Worthy of much consideration is a highly attractive four disc set of Liszt ‘Works for Piano and Orchestra’ containing fine versions of the two Piano Concertos performed Nelson Freire with the Dresdner Philharmonie under Michel Plasson. Freire provides character and presence in performances recorded in the Lukaskirche, Dresden in 1994. They were originally released on the Berlin Classics label. I found the sonics of these digitally recorded accounts adequate but not exceptional. The concertante works on this valuable set are performed by various soloists, orchestras and conductors on Brilliant Classics 99936 (c/w Wanderer Fantasie, S.366; Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Tunes, S.123; Polonaise Brillante, S.367; Lelio Fantasy, S.120; Ruinen von Athen, S.389; Malédiction, S121; De profundis, S.691 and Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat major, Op. posth reconstructed by J. Rosenblatt; Totentanz, S.126) or in diverse company in the Great Artists (Piano) collection on Brilliant Classics 9200.
A highly desirable recording of the Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat major is the 2006 Watford Colosseum recording from young Chinese soloist Yundi Li and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Andrew Davis. Yundi Li does a magnificent job with Liszt’s contrasting demands. His playing blends drama with poetry on Deutsche Grammophon 477 640-2 (c/w Chopin Piano Concerto No.1). There are many admirers of the exciting and resolute 1968 Walthamstow Town Hall, London analogue account of the Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat major from Martha Argerich with the London Symphony Orchestra under Claudio Abbado. I have the Argerich version as part of a two disc Franz Liszt compilation set on Deutsche Grammophon Panorama 469 151-2.

I still have fond memories my 1982 vinyl recording of the Liszt Piano Concerto No.1 in the sparkling and stylish performance from French soloist Cécile Ousset with the CBSO under Simon Rattle on EMI ASD 4307 (c/w Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No.2). I understand that this Cécile Ousset recording, with the same coupling, has been released on compact disc on EMI CDC 7 47221 2.
These Ruhr Piano Festival performances radiate terrific power and drama. For Deutsche Grammophon this compelling new recording is a match for any of the competing accounts.
Michael Cookson
A match for any of the competing accounts.