Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
The Art of Remembering

Valse oubliée no.1, S.215 [2:46]
Etudes pour le piano-forte en quarante-huit exercices dans tous les tons majeurs et mineurs, S.136 IX. [3.15]
Petite valse favorite, S.212 [3.21]
Valse oubliée no.2, S.215 [5.54]
Etudes d'exécution transcendante, S.139 IX. Ricordanza [10.17]
Symphonie fantastique op.4 (Berlioz), S.470 IV. Marche au supplice [5.05]
Liebesträum no.2 'Seliger tod', S.541 [3.49]
Valse oubliée no.3, S.215 [5.05]
Etudes d'exécution transcendante, S.139 VII. Eroica [4.52]; VIII. Wilde Jagd [5.33]
Apparitions no.1, S.155 [6.40]
En rêve, nocturne, S.207 [2.09]
Valse oubliée no.4, S.215 [2.54]
Schlaflos, Frage und Antwort, S.203 [2.24]
Trauervorspiel und Trauermarsch, S.206 [6.08]
Bagatelle sans tonalité, S.216 [2.17]
Fünf kleine klavierstück, S.192 V. Sospiri! [2.45]; I. [Sehr langsam] [2.55]
Olivia Sham (pianos)
rec. 29 September 2014 (Hatchlands Park), 6-7 October 2014 (Royal Academy of Music Museum) and 29 October 2014 (Potton Hall), UK
AVIE AV2355 [78.14]
This is the debut recording of pianist Olivia Sham, Australian-born and now resident in London where she recently completed a doctorate at the Royal Academy of Music. The work of Liszt, with its demands on both technique and sensibility is a fairly typical choice for such a disc, but this is different. “Liszt: The Art of Remembering” explores the links between the development of the composer's music and the development of the nineteenth-century piano. So on this disc three different instruments are used.

Sham performs early works including Etudes d'exécution transcendante and the arrangement of Marche au supplice from Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique on two different Parisian Érard pianos from the 1840s, and late works such as those of tracks 12-17 (see track-listing above), all from the mid-1880s, on a modern Steinway. Apart from that late group, successive tracks quite often switch between different instruments so that one certainly notices the different timbre. With any work performed here on one of the mid-century Érards, and if you are familiar with the music only on a modern instrument, you will find the different colours of the various keyboard registers often illuminating and even poetic. To hear a lyrical piece such as Ricordanza, played on the 1845 instrument here, is to be transported into an 1850s Parisian Salon.

Sham herself contributes a note on the instruments and Liszt’s musical development, although it contains no specific stylistic points in relation to any individual piece or instrument. That would have been valuable and she would have been ideally placed to write it – she is an Honorary Research Fellow at the RAM and performs on instruments from various historical collections in Europe. She writes a quite unusual note on the music selected – one unique in my experience. As a short preface explains this note mimics, sometimes quite closely, Berlioz’s own note on his Symphonie Fantastique. This link to a famously dreamlike work perhaps explains the title of the disc. It is good fun if you take the trouble to look out the Berlioz note as well, but will seem rather odd to those who have never seen that fantastical piece of prose. She manages to do this while also managing to say something valuable about the music, often using Liszt’s own remarks.

All this would be of no consequence if the playing did not do justice to the music but it does, on all three instruments and to music from all the periods. There is no piece that hangs fire, and several that catch fire. That is certainly the case with two of the selections from the transcendental studies, Eroica and Wild Jagd, given with plenty of virtuoso élan when required, but still always musical and sensitive to the colour obtainable from the 1845 instrument. Perhaps some passages make more sense technically on a piano with a lighter action than the modern Steinway – certainly Olivia Sham dispatches many a stormy passage in a way that makes them seem an integral part of the musical discourse. The later works are played here on a modern instrument and so the recorded competition for those is far greater. She at least holds her own in those sometimes elusive works alongside many a better-known pianist.

Unless you are allergic to all early pianos — and there are still some music-lovers who are thus afflicted — there is much to be gained from adding at least one disc like this to your collection. Other very valuable - because superbly played - discs of Liszt played on earlier instruments include Claire Chevalier’s 2011 recital on La Dolce Volta on an 1876 Érard, Daniel Grimwood’s 2008 complete Années de Pèlerinage on SFZ using an 1851 Érard, and listener in the manner of late Beethoven, drawing us into its introspective world. It makes a fine close to this set of very sophisticated works, which are well worth getting to know and reward repeated close listening. The set might well be the 2011 recital of late works (Brilliant Classics) on Liszt’s own Bechstein. That last one would be an especially useful supplement to Sham’s disc, as it has several of the later works such as the four Valses Oubliées, which she plays on a modern piano, played on the composer’s own warm-sounding instrument.

Roy Westbrook

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