Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Sonata in B minor [29:28]
Mazeppa (Transcendental Study No.4 in D minor [08:21]
Mephisto Waltz No.1 [12:39]
Félix Ardanaz (piano)
rec. live, 16-17 September 2010, location not specified
ORPHEUS 3906-1828 [50:30]
How have I missed Félix Ardanaz? He is described in the booklet as a Spanish pianist and conductor (b.1968), with a clutch of prizes in piano competitions, and one of the last pupils of Alicia de Larrocha. He has played at prestigious venues around Europe and made a small number of CDs including one harpsichord recital (review). On the present evidence, he should make a lot more. This one comes from performances given in 2010, when the artist was just 21, offers three of Liszt’s best-loved solo piano works, and is a great success.
Mazeppa is based on the tale recounted in poems by Byron and Victor Hugo. The Cossack hero is lashed naked to a horse’s back for having had an affair with a Countess at the Polish court, The thundering of the horse’s hooves, marked staccatissimo in the first version, test the artist’s endurance, for technically this is a study in parallel thirds and wide leaps. Ardanaz’s technique is fully up to this trial of dexterity, but no less importantly he reminds us that this technical study is also a tone poem. Thus he provides a sense of narrative drive, and in the canto espressivo section, much pathos. The Allegro deciso where the horse’s accelerating gallop becomes headlong is here a tour de force of brilliant playing.
The Mephisto Waltz No.1 takes an episode from the Faust of Lenau, in which Mephistopheles and Faust have some diabolical fun at a village wedding feast. Mephistopheles seizes a fiddle and plays a sensual waltz for Faust and a village beauty, who dance out of the inn and into the woods at night. A synopsis of this episode was published with the score, so we have another tone poem for keyboard, requiring the pianist to negotiate many technical hurdles while relating an engrossing tale. Ardanaz relishes this dual role, and has for instance a range of trills from sweet pastoral birdsong to the devilish bone-rattling shakes that embellish the wild dance. Ardanaz makes the final pages into a terrific climax, followed by the only applause included on the disc, after this last item. You might well not notice that the performance is live until then, except from the sense of communication in the performances.
Ardanaz’s account of the mighty Liszt Sonata sounds deeply pondered, not just well-prepared. He relates the various sections to each other in terms of tempo, so that the whole large structure hangs together persuasively – not always the case with this work. Yet he still has some of the expressive flexibility within a given tempo that we know Liszt expected - according to his pupils’ recollections. At the first allegro energico marking he is steadily propulsive, not too fast too soon, but with accumulating power and excitement. The grandioso theme is nobly presented, and the cantando espressivo and andante sostenuto slow music is exquisitely phrased, meltingly lyrical and never sentimental; another of Liszt’s own injunctions. He also brings out some inner details tellingly, without stressing them to a degree that detracts from the main lines. The fugal section - another allegro energico marking - brings great clarity to the polyphony as well as the drive implied by the markings. The playing in the virtuoso sections is genuinely exciting rather than merely excitable, kept in proportion to their place in the argument. The climax of the sonata certainly brings a thrilling prestissimo from Ardanaz, before the return of the grandioso theme and the quietly haunting withdrawal of the close.
Kenneth Hamilton, author of a book on the B minor Sonata and the most recent BBC Radio 3 reviewer of the work for ‘Building a Library’, declared a preference for performances that do not go over the half-hour mark – Horowitz and Hough - the latter his eventual library choice - being prime examples from different generations. This certainly keeps things moving even while allowing space for the lyrical sections to flower, and Ardanaz’s 29:28 timing never feels rushed. In a recent BBC interview (19 Sept 2015) Alfred Brendel said “Liszt is very dependent on his performers”. Ardanaz here shows himself to be an artist with whom Liszt’s music can safely be entrusted, and it would have been good to fill out this 50 minute disc with a bit more of it.
There are booklet notes on the music and the artist. We are not told where the live performance was given, but there are colour photos of Ardanaz in Barcelona’s very recognizable Palau concert hall. Wherever it was captured, the piano sound is very good – the instrument is caught close, which reduces any sense of true pianissimi, and with a full range of timbre. There is an especially rich and resonant bass, which on some systems might need taming. Fine Liszt piano discs are legion, and this one too deserves a place in the catalogue. Let me mention two other recent Liszt recitals that include both the sonata and the Mephisto Waltz. First, Boris Berezovsky on Mirare in 2010, whose astonishing live B minor Sonata is despatched in just 24:57. Second, Alexei Grynyuk on Orchid Classics in 2013, whose less extreme sonata takes 31:26. Ardanaz does not supplant those two, but is at least worthy to sit on the shelf alongside them.