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Duels
Franz LISZT (1811–1886)
Sonata in B minor S178 [31:19]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810–1856)
Kreisleriana
Op.16 [33:43]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Allegretto
from Symphony No. 7 (transcr. Liszt), Op.92 S464/7 [8:27]
Simon Ghraichy (piano)
rec. 2–4 September 2015, Frits Philips Concertgebouw, Eindhoven, Netherlands.
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72698 [74:16]

I hadn’t previously heard or even heard of the pianist Simon Ghraichy. When I saw another recording of the Liszt Sonata in B minor by someone I'd not heard of, I thought I would have a listen.  A quick search on the internet reveals that he has recorded another CD. That one is purely of Liszt transcriptions and, having heard that as well (via a streaming service), I can say that Ghraichy is well up to the task.  On the present disc, he tackles the famous Sonata in B minor which was composed in 1853 and published in 1854.  Like most of Liszt's works, it underwent a number of revisions before being published. Some of these first thoughts have been recorded and make for interesting listening in comparison with the masterpiece that is the final version.  Some of the history of the piece is nicely described in the cover notes.

The sonata has been recorded numerous times by many pianists and everyone seems to have a favourite performance. It is testimony to the complexity of the work that someone has written a book about it which details the length of time taken to play it in the dozens of recordings that were made up to that point – not exactly the most enthralling book ever written, I imagine. I have more than twenty recordings of the work by pianists past and present.

From the outset, this pianist starts heroically with the sinister-sounding descending whole tone scale before leaping up into the middle register of the keyboard: the first ‘Allegro energico’ section. Interestingly, here Ghraichy seems careful but with a sense of power held in check for when it is needed. Around 1:30 in, the ‘marcato’ rhythms in the bass are particularly well done. The ‘Grandioso’ section is grand but not too much so and the deceleration to the major key section is very well phrased. I also like the way he understates the chords in the base at about 5:30. The following section marked ‘Cantando espressivo’ is played in a way that emphasises some of the slightly clashing chords in the treble which I had not actually noticed before, despite playing the work myself - badly. Things do not stay quiet for long and when it gets to the ‘Allegro energico’ section around 8:00, he shows that he can do power as well as poetry. Liszt’s transformation of themes continues apace and at 12:23 we find a telling ‘Andante sostenuto’ in F sharp major. As with all the slow and reflective parts elsewhere in this performance, this is wonderfully played. After the repeat of the ‘Grandioso’ section (in a different key) things wind up nicely before settling down again. All this is excellently judged and there is a flexibility about the tempi which is interesting. These are not pulled about so much that the piece loses sight of the coherent whole. Around half way through, we get to an impressive ‘espressivo’ section but, before this, there are little tiny scale runs down from the treble which after often played too slowly; here they are not which is a revelation. The sinister descending theme from the start occurs again at about 19:00 before the crazy ‘fugato’ section (also marked ‘Allegro energico’) starts. Everything is very clear here. There is minimal pedalling and all the phrases are excellently delineated. The clarity of the playing is really helped by the quality of the recording which is impeccable. There is a fine sense of yearning at around 25 minutes with another ‘Cantando’ section, in B major. The ‘Stretta’ section following this is very fast and clear so that all the details stand out really well. The final few pages, where Liszt winds all the themes together and transforms them into the calm and peaceful ending, rising up the piano are really well played. Overall, the slower sections are slow but not excessively so which means the performance comes out at just over 31:30 – towards the slower end of the recordings I’ve heard. This is a really romantic performance, perhaps too lovely in places for some but excellent all the same. I look forward to hearing more of Mr. Ghraichy's Liszt. He is clearly someone to listen out for.

Schumann’s Kreisleriana Op.16 is divided into eight sections, inspired by the composer's interest in the works of E.T.A. Hoffmann. The first section, Äußerst bewegt (extremely animated) is indeed extremely animated and certainly suits Ghraichy’s way of playing. It is also very fast. Next follows a more reflective Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch (very inwardly and not too quickly) which is also played very well here. The first central section is slightly less “inward” and is very cheerful and bounces along pleasingly. There is again, as in the Liszt, some well-calculated phrasing here. After a repeat of the first part, another more animated and bouncy section appears before a final return of the inward sounding music from the start. There are bell-like effects at around 8:00 and some utterly breath-taking playing here. The Third section of the work is another agitated part, dispatched with suitable aplomb. Again, there is a more peaceful section in the middle. Part 4 is a slow section (Sehr langsam – very slowly) and it is also played throughout. The remainder of the parts of the piece are all played very well, the fast agitated sections (parts 5, 7 and especially 8) are played exactly right and this piece suits the pianist well. The penultimate section with the fugal part in the middle is brilliantly articulated so that all the details are very clear. The one remaining slow more reflective section (no.6) is just as well played as the earlier ones. Overall, this is a moving performance of a very interesting and complex work. I daresay that, as with the Liszt, listeners will have their own favourite performance – this one is one that makes me want to listen to this disc often. I really must get to know Schumann’s Kreisleriana better — I had forgotten what a fine work it is.

The disc ends with a Liszt transcription - that of the Allegretto from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony in A major, Op.92.  This is probably the best recording I have heard of this piece. Somehow, despite the technical demands, all of the details are present. There is a real feeling of pathos and sadness despite the fact that it is supposed to be an ‘Allegretto’; it is often played too slowly. That is not the case here and I really hope that this pianist gets around to recording the whole of the Symphony transcription at some point – he certainly has the technique for it.

There remains one minor question – I find myself somewhat puzzled by the title of the disc – Schumann was a friend of Liszt’s — at the time, before Clara poisoned her husband’s mind against Liszt — and was unlikely to have had a duel with him in the way that Liszt did with Thalberg.

Jonathan Welsh
 


 

 




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