Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat major, S.124 (1830-49, rev. 1853, 1856) [18:48]
Piano Concerto No.2 in A major, S.125 (1839-40, rev. 1849, 1861) [21:51]
Totentanz for piano and orchestra, S.126, R.457, (1839-49 with later revisions) [15:38]
Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Tunes for piano and orchestra, S.123 (1852/53) [15:33]
Nareh Arghamanyan (piano)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Alain Altinoglu
rec. Haus des Rundfunks, RBB Berlin, Germany, April 2012
Armenian soloist Nareh Arghamanyan studied at the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna and was a winner of the 2008 Montreal International Music Competition. There are several excellent orchestras in the city of Berlin and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin is certainly worthy of praise. It has made a number of recent recordings for Pentatone. Paris-born conductor Alain Altinoglu has conducted a number of prestigious orchestras including productions at many international opera houses. He made his New York Metropolitan debut in 2010 conducting Bizet’s Carmen.
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 further adjustments in 1856. Dedicated to the piano virtuoso and composer Henry Litolff it would be hard to imagine more eminent performers at its 1855 première at the Ducal Palace in Weimar, Germany when the composer was soloist under the baton of Hector Berlioz. Following its introduction influential music critic Eduard Hanslick described the score as the “Triangle Concerto” in response to the prominent triangle part in the third movement. Cast in four movements and unfolding in a single continuous span it is now firmly regarded as a warhorse of the repertoire.
Of special note in the First Concerto is Arghamanyan’s playing of the second movement Quasi adagio at times so affectionate and intimate. Suddenly altering character the music becomes stormy and forthright with Arghamanyan shifting swiftly to a joyous and up-lifting mood. The sound of the infamous triangle in the Allegretto vivace was barely audible. This is light-hearted music that seems to canter along without a care in the world with Arghamanyan confidently negotiating the hazards along the way. With occasional bouts of seriousness in the buoyant and jaunty writing of the final movement there is spirited and assured playing. I loved the barnstorming Presto conclusion.
Liszt began composing his Piano Concerto No.2 in 1839 in Rome, revising the score on at least two further occasions. The first performance was given with Liszt conducting his pupil Hans Bronsart (von Schellendorff) at Weimar in 1857. To highlight the symphonic nature of the score it was described in the manuscript as a “concerto symphonique”. Designed in a single continuous span the A major Concerto is in six sections although this recording is separated into four tracks. No less a figure than Daniel Barenboim has expressed the view: “Although less frequently played than the first, the second concerto is no less a masterpiece.” With Arghamanyan and Altinoglu I especially enjoyed the restless feel and quick tempo of the opening movement. It generates a real sense of drama. The opening of the Allegro agitato assai feels ominous building to a compelling climax before moving to a relaxing world of ease and comfort. I loved the windswept quality of the Allegro deciso with its keen forward momentum and muscularity. Most remarkable are the contrasting moods in the Finale marked Marziale, un poco meno allegro. The bravura conclusion is dramatic.
Over the years I have come across a large number of recordings of the Liszt Piano Concertos. I especially admire the marvellously exhilarating and highly confident accounts from Krystian Zimerman and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa. Zimerman recorded the Liszt scores at the Symphony Hall, Boston in 1987 with a warm and clear digital sound on Deutsche Grammophon 423 571-2 (c/w Totentanz). I also have great respect for the commanding live 2011 accounts from Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin under Pierre Boulez from the Essen Philharmonie at the Ruhr Piano Festival. Barenboim provides strong and assured performances that are often exhilarating with Boulez and the Staatskapelle Berlin coming across as highly responsive partners. The perfect scenario would be to own both the Zimerman/Ozawa and the Barenboim/Boulez sets. One of the lesser known recordings of the Liszt Concertos 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).
It seems that Liszt was inspired to write his Totentanz (Dance of death or Dance macabre) Paraphrase on theDies iraefor piano and orchestra, S.126 by the magnificent frescoes titled ‘The Triumph of Death’ on the wall of the basilica in the Campo Santo at Pisa. The Totentanz comprises a series of variations that embodies the plainchant of the ‘Dies Irae’. It was first sketched out by Liszt around 1839 and completed by 1849 undergoing subsequent revision. Here the soloist shows fine musicianship giving a most persuasive account that conveys a wide range of colour and dynamic. The conclusion is both exhilarating and highly dramatic. With regard to alternative recordings I admire the stirring and confident performance from Krystian Zimerman mentioned above.
Liszt’s Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Tunes for piano and orchestra, S.123 (Hungarian Fantasy) composed in 1852/53 has a similar style with comparable energetic rhythms to his renowned Hungarian Rhapsodies. It’s a score that I experience as frequently coarse, overblown and sometimes brash but always absorbing and often thrilling. Arghamanyan is a most persuasive soloist. Of the finest accounts of the Hungarian Fantasy I’m happy to stay with Arghamanyan on Pentatone. As an alternative there is the vibrant 1981 Philadelphia account from soloist Cyprien Katsaris and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy on PIANO 21 P21 022-A.
The orchestra play convincingly throughout this disc demonstrating keen concentration and splendid musicianship. The orchestral colours are broad in range and spectacularly vivid.
Michael Cookson
Keen concentration and splendid musicianship.

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