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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano concerto no.1 in E flat major, S.124 (1849/1856) [19:08]
Concerto in E minor Malédiction for piano and strings, S.121 (1833) [15:44]
Piano concerto no.2 in A major, S.125 (1839/1849) [22:19]
Alexandre Kantorow (piano)
Tapiola Sinfonietta/Jean-Jacques Kantorow
rec. Tapiola Concert Hall, Finland, 2014 BIS BIS-2100 SACD [58:02]
With so many recorded versions to choose from, everyone will have their own favourite disc of one or other - or both - of the Liszt piano concertos. My colleague Dan Morgan, in his review of this new BIS release, revealed, for instance, his own soft spot for Krystian Zimerman's much-lauded DG recording made in 1987 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa.
My own benchmark account was, for many years, an even earlier one - the justifiably famous and much-reissued version set down in the studio in 1961 by Sviatoslav Richter, accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra led by Kyril Kondrashin. In time - and having meanwhile sampled plenty of other recordings - I supplemented it with superbly re-mastered 1957 accounts from Julius Katchen and the LSO, this time under Ataúlfo Argenta (currently on Double Decca 458 361-2 – see here for a MusicWeb International review of its earlier release). Katchen's viscerally thrilling performances bowled me over and took their place alongside Richter's more magisterial but rather less freewheeling and, in any case, less clearly recorded disc.
Even readers who, like Dan and me, already have definite favourites probably don't put the Liszt concertos into the CD player all that often. It would be idle, after all, to suggest that the music plumbs any truly great emotional depths. Instead, the concertos' appeal lies primarily in the opportunities for virtuosic display that they offer. It might be thought that these days, with the 60-odd - and counting - volumes of Hyperion's admirable Romantic piano concerto series to choose between, we are spoiled for choice in such displays of flashy finger-work. Nevertheless, one only needs to listen to a few of the more obscure entries in that fascinating - and still unfolding - survey to appreciate why it is that they have been so long forgotten - and why Liszt's more concentrated and thematically more memorable concertos have continued to hold their place in the repertoire.
These new accounts from the Kantorows, father and son, are accompanied by one of the composer's much less well known pieces: the single-movement concerto for piano and strings Malédiction. As Dan Morgan made plain, these three performances are very fine indeed. While those of the concertos may not convey the consistently dramatic weight and power of Richter, or Katchen's almost tangible sense of spontaneous rediscovery of the music, they more than succeed on a different plane and very much on their own terms.
Possibly because I'd listened to both Richter and Katchen in preparation for this disc, the first thing that struck me was how good the sound on the new BIS recording is. You get the feeling that we are right there in the concert hall - but alone and with no bronchial coughers - and that we have been placed in the most advantageous seat where piano and orchestra are so exquisitely balanced that all Liszt's sparkling detail comes through.
Young Alexandre Kantorow dashes off all that pianistic sparkle as if to the manner born and he can certainly storm a barn with the best of his potential rivals. All the glitter and drama that we expect is undeniably there and he need fear no comparison on that account. But Kantorow is even more successful when it comes to conveying the more ruminative, poetic elements of Liszt's groundbreaking scores. In an especially striking contrast to the Richter performances, which emerge in comparison as relatively forthright and even hard-driven, it is Kantorow's lyricism that makes a strongly distinctive impression on this disc and marks out his performances as rather special. To possess such sensibility and sensitivity at such a young age suggests that he is already well on the way to developing into a most remarkable artist.
At the risk of sounding like a mere echo of Dan's paean of praise, I too must applaud these performances showcasing the accomplished Tapiola Sinfonietta - a relatively new Finnish band that dates only from 1987 - under the baton of Jean-Jacques Kantorow. He is a very familiar figure to the players, having spent the best part of the 1990s as the orchestra's artistic director and currently holding the post of its honorary conductor. He is also, as already noted, the soloist's father. Perhaps his role as, in a very personal sense, the lynchpin of this collaborative partnership goes a long way towards explaining the almost tangible degree of empathy and intensity that can be sensed in the music-making.
Please don't be put off this disc by its rather short overall timing. What we have here is a release that may well persuade you to listen anew to some familiar repertoire and one where quality more than makes up for any shortfall in quantity. It is certainly no mere flashy launchpad for some new aspiring pianist's recording career. Alexandre Kantorow reveals aspects of these works that many older and more experienced artists ignore entirely. Do try to listen to this disc.
By the way, having agreed with virtually every word that Dan Morgan wrote in his review, I must quibble on a single point - his passing remark that the soloist was just 18 when he made these recordings. Perhaps Dan was misled by the fashionable designer stubble that Alexandre Kantorow sports on the CD's cover. The fact is that, with BIS's booklet notes confirming that he was born on some unspecified date in 1997, Alexandre can't have reached his 18th birthday before 1 January 2015 at the earliest. When, therefore, these recordings were made in November 2014, he can only have been 17 years old. On the outside chance that he'd been born in December 1997, he may even have been just 16. He's clearly an even more remarkable young man than we thought.