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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, S. 124 (1832-1856) [19:08]
Concerto in E minor for piano and strings, Malédiction, S. 121 (1833-1840) [15:44]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, S. 125 (1839/1849-1861) [22:19]
Alexandre Kantorow (piano)
Tapiola Sinfonietta/Jean-Jacques Kantorow
rec. November 2014, Tapiola Concert Hall, Finland
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2100 SACD [58:02]

BIS have been here before; they released a recording of the two Liszt concertos with Arnaldo Cohen and the São Paulo orchestra under John Neschling, which Michael Cookson described as well-played but lacking in spontaneity (review). Like him I have a soft spot for the Zimerman/Ozawa accounts on DG, which I’ve chosen as my comparative versions here. I was particularly pleased to see that this newcomer is produced and engineered by Take5’s Jens Braun, the man behind the splendid Ainola album with Folke Gräsbeck (review). A musical and technical milestone, the latter is likely to be among my Recordings of the Year 2015.

The French-Russian conductor and violinist Jean-Jacques Kantorow is joined here by his son Alexandre, who was just 18 when this recording was made. The Tapiola Sinfonietta, based in Espoo, Finland, need no introduction, for they have featured on many BIS recordings to date. The curiosity here is Liszt’s Concerto for piano and strings that was only published in 1915. We all know that Liszt loved his demons, but as Michael Emmans Dean points out in his succinct liner-notes, the title Malédiction (Curse) is only appended to the first of the work’s two short movements.

Speaking of diablerie the two big concertos are a devil to play. Given the virtuosity of No. 1 it seems entirely appropriate that it should be premiered with the composer at the keyboard and that other musical maverick, Hector Berlioz, on the podium. Kantorow père et fils get this one off to a thrilling start, with playing that’s attention-getting but not attention-seeking. Indeed, that pretty much describes this performance as a whole; the big moments are commanding and the quieter ones have a gentle radiance that one seldom hears in the piece.

The dandelion-light little tune that twirls through the Allegro maestoso is an absolute delight. The conductor is very much in control of his band – who play very well for him – and the recording has a blend of delicacy and strength that I find most seductive. The balance between soloist and orchestra is good too. Even lovelier is the pianist’s tender, beautifully shaped Quasi adagio, which has a rare, breath-bating quality that one is more likely to experience in the concert hall than the studio. Then there's the big Lisztian flourishes – some would call bombastic – but even these are sensibly scaled.

It’s the more diaphanous scoring that benefits most from an almost chamber-like transparency and general air of discretion. That’s not to say that the performance lacks drama, just that it’s tastefully delivered. That same buoyancy is carried over into the Allegretto, which the young Kantorow points with an exquisite skill. The martial finale is supremely assured as well, orchestra and soloist in firm accord to the last. Now I begin to see why BIS decided to add this album to their earlier one, for it’s very special indeed. True, the Malédiction concerto seems more like a work in progress, but that too gets a persuasive – and proportionate – outing.

The Piano Concerto No. 2 begins with a nicely poised Adagio sostenuto, into which the soloist steals with commendable grace and a ravishing tone. Even those stormy bass chords are judiciously done. The attentive Tapiolans are a pleasure to hear, the taut, cleanly recorded timps especially so. Even in the most capable hands this concerto is apt to ramble, so it’s a measure of the talents of all concerned that I was spellbound to the very end. Along the way there’s a scalp-tingling Allegro deciso and a wonderfully quick-witted finale.

Having listened to this album repeatedly – and enjoyed it more each time - I’d urge all Lisztians to buy it at once. Come to think of it I’d also recommend it to those who don’t like Liszt, for it shows this much-maligned composer in the best possible light.

Kantorow fils is a virtuoso of rare sensitivity and good taste; Jens Braun’s recording is excellent, too.

Dan Morgan



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