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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Sonata in B minor [30:10]
Trübe Wolken [2:34]
Richard Wagner – Venezia [2:47]
Unstern! Sinistre, disastro [4:12]
Four Little Piano Pieces [7:20]
En rêve [2:34]
Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort [2:49]
La lugubre gondola (version 2) [7:19]
Paul Lewis (piano)
rec. December 2003, Teldex Studio, Berlin Germany
HARMONIA MUNDI HMA1951845 [59:58]

Though it was first recorded back in 2003, Paul Lewis’s account of Liszt’s B minor Sonata - surely his greatest masterpiece - still stands as one of the finest available, even though so many great pianists, Katchen, Richter and Horowitz among them, have committed the work to disc. Lewis’s reading lacks nothing in sheer power – it can be rightly accorded the knee-jerk adjective ‘barn-storming’.

Yet it’s so much more than that; he gets right inside the Sonata, and brings out the structural strength that lies behind what can sometimes feel like one long extemporisation of loosely strung ideas. For example, each reprise of the great major key theme manages to feel and sound completely different, sometimes surging with confidence, at others more fragile. Individual moments are savoured for all they’re worth, but there’s a wonderfully long span of thought here.

The recording is superb – some may find themselves a little too close for comfort, but for me it was ideal – this is a work that is so visceral that one needs physically to experience those massive resonances from the innards of the piano.

The smaller works with which the sonata is coupled make fascinating listening. For a start, there are two written as elegies for Richard Wagner; RW-Venezia, short but gloomily intense, and the more extended La lugubre gondola. There are also two quite extraordinary pieces which were not published until forty years after Liszt’s death. Trübe Wolken (literally ‘Sad Clouds’) is close to being atonal, and explores augmented harmony and whole-tone scales in the most haunting way – much of it could easily have been composed by Debussy. The same is true of these other pieces, mostly written in the 1880s, shortly before Liszt’s death, and some thirty years after the Sonata. They are essential listening if one is to understand fully this exceedingly complex figure, who can seem such a superficial showman if one knows perhaps only the concertos and some of the symphonic poems.

The exception to the above dates are the Four Little Piano Pieces of the mid-1770s, which are delightful miniatures, thoughtful and delicate, offering maybe a mid-stage between the earlier solo piano works such as the Consolations or Traümerei, and the strange, disconcerting works of the last years.

This is a great recital, and a disc to be treasured; thanks and full credit to Harmonia Mundi for re-releasing it.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Masterwork Index: Sonata in b minor