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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Grandes études de Paganini, S141 (1851)
No. 1 in G Minor [5:25]
No. 2 in E Flat Major [5:55]
No. 3 in G Sharp Minor, "La campanella" [5:07]
No. 4 in E Major [2:16]
No. 5 in E Major, "La Chasse" [3:34]
No. 6 in A Minor, "Theme and Variations" [5:44]
Six Études d'exécution transcendante d'après Paganini, S140 (1838)
No. 1a in G Minor [4:57]
No. 1b in G Minor (alternative version incorporating material from Schumann’s study Op 10 No 2 in G minor, Op.10 no.2) [4:37]
No. 2 in E Flat Major, “Octave”[5:02]
No. 3 in A Flat Minor, "La campanella" [5:07]
No. 4a in E Major, “Arpeggio” [3:13]
No. 4b in E Major , “Arpeggio” [4:45]
No. 5a in E Major, "La chasse" [4:34]
No. 5b in E Major, "La chasse" [4:28]
No. 6 in A Minor, "Theme and Variations" [7:05]
Variations sur Le Carnaval de Venise, S700a (1843) [6:41]
Wojciech Waleczek (piano)
rec. 2015/2016, Szymanowski Academy of Music, Katowice, Poland
CAPRICCIO C5276 [71:30]

The virtuoso violinist and minor composer Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) had an enormous influence on the first generation of Romantic composers. Schumann and Liszt were only two of those who fell under his spell. Each of them made his own piano versions of a number of Paganini’s Caprices for solo violin and each issued two sets of these versions. Schumann’s were his Op 3 of 1832 and his Op 10 of 1833. Liszt’s were the two sets here, of 1838 and 1851. Liszt profited from Schumann’s example and dedicated his two sets to Clara Schumann. Leslie Howard points out that ‘although these works are really transcriptions, they are always catalogued and published as original Liszt works.’

The two sets rework the same material, with the 1838 set being generally the more demanding of virtuoso pianism. This is not to say that the 1851 versions are easy – far from it – but in them Liszt has toned down some of the more extravagant difficulties and, generally, improved the pieces as music. It is good to hear them together, and indeed the first time I listened to this recording, I listened to each piece in each of its versions rather than in their sets.

To do these pieces justice requires not only technical skill but also the sort of panache which makes them seem easy while at the same time also making it clear that they are not, and also a sense of fun. Wojciech Waleczek can actually play them – not something to be underrated – but it is in the second and third of these requirements that I feel he sometimes falls short. Rather to my surprise, I found him generally more convincing in the 1838 versions than in the 1851. For example in No 2, the little flourish in the right hand is witty in his 1838 but merely neat in his 1851. In the chordal writing of No 5, which reproduces the effect of double stopping on the violin, he is witty in 1838 but rather prosaic in 1851. In No 3, the famous Campanella, the best known of these pieces, he brings some magic to 1838, while his 1851 is elegant but not more. I suspect he already knew the 1851 set and put more preparation time into 1838 which comes out fresher and more interesting. He also gives us the variant versions of three of the studies from 1838, and almost convinced me that 1b, which incorporates Schumann’s Op 10 No 2, is a better version than either of Liszt’s other two or than Schumann’s own. I started wondering whether Waleczek might give us the Schumann Paganini studies, which are rarely recorded and might feel more at home with these than with Liszt.

To round off he gives us the Carnaval de Venise, possibly based on a tune by or used by Paganini. This is really a jeu d’esprit; Liszt neither finished nor published it. Waleczek is dreamily atmospheric at the beginning, sparking and scintillating in the passages which sound like an imitation of Chopin’s Berceuse, and rises to a great climax before the abrupt ending. It is actually the best thing on the disc and rather shows up the more prosaic playing in the Paganini studies.

Although there are many versions of the 1851 set there are few of them coupled with the 1838 set. A recent set, which Jonathan Welsh liked, is by Goran Filipec (review), which also has the Carnaval de Venise to complete the disc. My comparison was with the indefatigable Leslie Howard. His set is volume 48 of his complete Liszt series. His playing can be uneven, not surprisingly in such a huge enterprise, but there is no lack of gusto and fun in his Paganini studies. I should also add that his sleeve note, by Howard himself, is much more helpful than that for Waleczek and I have drawn on it for this review.

Waleczek is recorded well and does the job but his rather prosaic playing lets him down.
Stephen Barber


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