Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Sonata in B Minor S.178 (trans. for two pianos by Saint-Saëns) [29:25]
Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi sonata (Années de pèlerinage II, Italie, S. 161/ VII) (trans. for two pianos Ancelle) [16:21]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835–1921)
Danse Macabre, Op. 40 (original version for 2 pianos) [6:57]
Danse Macabre Op.40 (arr. Liszt, Horowitz & Ancelle) [9:08]
Ludmila Berlinskaya & Arthur Ancelle (pianos)
rec. Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire, May/June 2016.
MELODIYA MELCD1002463 [61:55]

This disc starts with a barnstorming rendition of the two piano version of the third and best known of Saint-Saëns’s Symphonic Poems – Danse Macabre. I’ve heard several recordings of this work and this is probably my favourite. There is a definite swing to the whole piece, after all, it is marked “Tempo di valse” and that is how it should be played. There is also plenty of charm here in the playing , the two pianists spark nicely off one another and are so well synchronised as to give the impression of only one player. There is also devilment in the playing – especially when the waltz starts properly and violently at about 1’20’’. The central, more peaceful section is well done and creates just the right atmosphere of calm before the storm when the waltz theme returns for the section prior to the ending of the work. How well this piece works in transcription at the end with the cockerel crowing! I don’t miss the oboe and violin combination at all!

Next follows the main work on this disc - Saint-Saëns transcription of Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. I have been aware of this for many years and have a very old off-air recording of the work (by an unknown pair of performers). That performance, as far as I was aware was never released commercially. Clearly that was the case as this recording is billed as the World Premier Recording of this work. Liszt had always wanted to arrange his Sonata in B minor for two pianos but with the ridiculously demanding work schedule that he kept up throughout his life, he never got around to doing it. It was some three decades after Liszt’s death that Saint-Saëns decided to make this arrangement and it cost him a great deal of effort. This performance is of a tidied up version of what Saint-Saëns wrote, as the printed version is rather messy and contains some errors which have been ironed out here in line with what Liszt wrote. When listening to the piece the first time, I must say that sonically, there seemed not to be much difference between a solo piano version and this version – the differences have become more apparent with increased familiarity and multiple listenings. Many of the textures are thickened and chords re-distributed in such a clever way. This works so well that if you didn’t know, you’d say it had been originally written for two pianos. The ‘Andantino’ sections are not played so slowly that the piece loses cohesion which is something that I always listen out for in this work. Having said that, there is actually little here that wasn’t in the original except perhaps at around 8’30’’ where little additions have been made, but these are well in keeping with the original and really sound rather splendid. Some louder climaxes, for example 7’40 to 7’50 and 11’10 actually sound more rounded and powerful , which is really interesting to hear. The slower sections are beautifully played and sound lovely, especially around 17' in the quiet middle part before the “Allegro energico” part begins. This doesn’t last long though as once the “Allegro energico” does begin, things get much more boisterous! The recapitulation of the descending theme heard just after the outset of the piece is interesting, it sounds like the first time this is played, there is no octave doubling. However the next time we hear it at about 20’50, there certainly is. This works very well and adds to the heightened tension as the piece gains in volume, power and difficulty, before it slowly winds down to the ethereal ending in B major. Overall timing is similar to the conventional version, lasting for around 29 minutes. I really enjoyed this recording. The transcription itself throws new light on the work, bringing out some details which could perhaps be lost otherwise. I am certain Liszt would have approved.

Following the Sonata, the next piece is a surprise - an arrangement of the so called Dante Sonata by Arthur Ancelle. This piece has been arranged for two pianos at least once before and that has been recorded by the Franz Liszt Piano Duo, who named the arranger Vittorio Bresciani. This is found on the Naxos complete piano music volume 26 (review). I reviewed that recording elsewhere and didn’t like the ‘Dante Sonata’ part of that disc much, despite it being very well played and adding some interesting counterpoint to the themes within the piece. This is because it struck me as an unnecessary arrangement, as the piece worked well enough in its original solo version. I also felt that the seventeen odd minutes that it took up on that disc could have been filled with one (or more) of Liszt’s other works for two pianos. There is still much of his work for this instrumentation left to be recorded and this is still the case, 10 years on. However, despite having, at that time, an aversion to more modern arrangements, I kept an open mind while reviewing this present disc. I must say that I was completely bowled over by this recording and I think this is because this arrangement is more akin to one that would have been done by Saint-Saëns or even Liszt himself. It is much more in keeping with the original notation of the piece. In short – this is a super transcription . Any additions are minor and sit well in comparison with the original. All the elements of the original are there, tritones, big leaps, demonic themes and lovely peaceful sections, all wonderfully played. As I said of the Sonata arrangement, there is little here which is not in the original and the most noticeable additions (e.g. around 6’00 – 7’00’’) fit really well. It is also superbly played and I really cannot fault it at all. I think that it has been the piece which I have played the most times from this disc. I’d award full marks to both pianists but especially to Arthur Ancelle for doing such a great job in creating this arrangement. Great stuff and well worth a listen!

Lastly follows an oddity – with multiple arrangers involved this time! I must confess to finding Horowitz’s various arrangements a bit of a mixed bag – some I like very much (like this one) and others (e.g. the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody arrangements) I feel are over the top and spoil the piece. Anyway, here Horowitz’s numerous emendations are rearranged superbly between the two pianists giving a fascinating effect. This re-transcription of a transcription of a transcription really is rather splendid. All of Horowitz’s strange effects are present and in some cases it really makes you realise how far reaching his changes were.

Overall this is an absolutely splendid and fascinating disc – the recording is very clear and bright and the music is superb. The cover notes are very informative and go into details about the problems that were encountered with the B minor Sonata manuscript and take the form of an interview with the performers which is most enlightening. I’m very glad to have been given the opportunity to review this disc and getting to know it has been very rewarding. This is my favourite Liszt disc of the year so far, and I award full marks to all concerned!

Jonathan Welsh

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