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Jonathan Woolf
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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
12 Transcendental Études, S139 (1852) [64:37]
Mephisto Waltz No.1, S.154, arr. Ferruccio Busoni/Vladimir Horowitz [11:36]
Jean Muller (piano)
rec. July 2013, Philharmonie, Luxembourg
JCH PRODUCTIONS JCH 2014/01 [76:19]

Serial international prize-winner Jean Muller has cut something of a swathe through the festival circuit and been touted as a rising player in the pianistic firmament. That celestial arena is littered with the dying stars of burnt-out cases or those unable to break into the big-time for one reason or another. Muller doesn’t record for a well-known label, so all the booklet puff in the world isn’t necessarily going to sway the casual purchaser or those suffering from an endemic lack of curiosity when it comes to less trumpeted performers. To those who suffer thus, it can be added that Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes may not be the perfect repertoire to bring Muller’s name to their notice. These incendiary pieces demand a technique of cast-iron assurance and, stylistically-speaking, the romantic affiliations to promote these showpieces in the best possible light.

Let’s cut to the chase and note that Muller proves a fearless guide through these manifold Lisztian traps, and that his technique – remarkably resilient – is allied to a richly poetic sensibility. The result is a set of the Etudes that can stand comparison with almost all-comers and one moreover that projects their theatricality, bombast, and rich lyricism with ardour.

Not only does Muller possess a powerful technique but he also possesses a refined tonal palette as well, as he demonstrates amply in Paysage where he builds the lyric quotient with increasing intensity. Mazeppa is a brilliantly realised tour-de-force though one that never descends either to bombast or mere grandiloquence. Retaining at all times a wide range of tone colours he evinces a comparably wide sense of the music’s turbulent musicality. The Eroica etude, too often glossed, is here full of theatrical panache but delivered in such a way that it never becomes externalised. The urgent drama of Wilde Jagd is powerful but has a richly rounded tone – there is no forcing through the tone in this disc - that delivers its message all the more sagely. And Harmonies du Soir ripples elegantly with strongly balanced chordal passages and no attempt made to over-pedal.

With the advantage of an outstanding Mephisto Waltz in its Busoni-Horowitz incarnation, this splendidly recorded disc – it was taped in the Philharmonie, Luxembourg – announces a Lisztian of great assurance, technical gifts and real musical excellence.

Jonathan Woolf