Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Scherzo and March [11:10]
Mephisto Waltz No. 1 [11:07]
Ave Maria ‘The Bells of Rome’ [05:30]
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (no. 4, 7 & 9), S. 173 [35:12]
Mephisto Polka [06:38]
Nuages gris [03:26]
Valse oubliée No. 2 [05:45]
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
rec. 9 May 1957 & 5 February 1958, Moscow; 11 September, 1982 Budapest; 10 March 1988 Cologne.
PRAGA PRD/DSD 350081 SACD [79:28]
This disc is entitled ‘Liszt Recital II’ of Praga Digital’s Liszt Edition. A first volume (DSD350078) contained some of the more celebrated solo works by Liszt, namely the Sonata in B Minor and some of the Études d'éxecution transcendante. This second volume opens with a relative rarity, the Scherzo and March, in a performance that suggests the piece should really be better known. The work is admired by specialists for the way the scherzo and the march sections are interwoven into a compelling single sonata form movement. But on first acquaintance it is more likely to strike the hearer, despite its neutral title, as a prime example of Liszt’s demonic side. Certainly Richter’s staggering performance has more than a whiff of sulphur about it. There used to be a later performance by him on an RCA disc from a 1998 Lübeck recital, which was how I first got to know the work. Terrific as that is, this 1957 Moscow account is still more remarkable, and the speed and attack of the hair-raising bravura sections account for the difference in timings, this performance taking nearly two minutes less than the RCA version.
With the Mephisto Waltz No.1 we stay in the Devil’s realm, but with a much more familiar piece of course. Familiar or not, there is nothing hackneyed about Richter’s playing here, fully encompassing all the technical demands, such as the leggiero molto wide leaps in the 6/8 section, but always towards the goal of providing a compelling narrative. This is after all a symphonic poem, (though not so called by Liszt), which uses thematic transformation to follow the Faustian episode from Lenau’s tale fairly closely. Richter here impresses both as master pianist and buttonholing storyteller. The placing next of the Ave Maria, a piece of religious impressionism (the subtitle is ‘The Bells of Rome’), was a good piece of disc planning, for we are in need of a benediction after all the diablerie.
Half of the length of this generous disc is taken up by three big items from the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. The first of these, ‘Pensée des morts’, is done with great poise, perfectly unhurried. There is a dream-like calm at the centre of this interpretation, which quite beguiles the listener. Timings for this work can vary widely. To take just two extremes from admired recent recordings of the whole cycle, Brigitte Engerer dashes through in 11:14, while François-Frédéric Guy is nearly becalmed at 17: 25. Richter’s 15:10 feels fairly broad for sure, but somehow just right. This s the work in the recital I have returned to most often. ‘Funerailles’ is one of the best known of the cycle, and has some of the same qualities of concentrated introspection at the outset, the bass growling in anger at the lives lost in the Hungarian uprising of 1848. The keening main theme is noble in its sorrow, and the middle section’s ostinato left-hand thunders beneath a superbly controlled crescendo.
After this the neglected ‘Andante Lagrimoso’ comes as sheer balm, and the three late pieces that close the recital are each hauntingly done.
This is an SACD, and the processing is quite effective given the age of the original tapes. Indeed the sound has come up better than many other Richter discs from this era. It’s not modern exactly, but the quality of the playing and - in case it still needs to be said – of the music, is such that any limitations are soon forgotten. This is an outstanding recital by a very great artist. More’s the pity then that the sketchy booklet notes are not really adequate given that not all the music is very familiar. If you want one volume to help you find your way around Liszt’s vast output, you can go to Derek Watson’s Master Musicians volume or even better “The Liszt Companion” from Greenwood Press, Edited by Ben Arnold in 2002.