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Franz LISZT (1811–1886)
Lisztomania – Volume 1
Erlkönig (Erlking, S.558) [5:03]
La lugubre gondola No.1 (The Funeral Gondola, S.200) [3:58]
Ballade No.2 in B minor, S.171 [14:55]
Après une lecture du Dante (After a Reading of Dante, S.161 no.7) [17:34]
Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (The Blessing of God in Solitude, S.173 no.3) [17:37]
Chasse-neige (Blizzard, Transcendental Etude no.12, S.139) [5:38]
Auf dem Wasser zu singen (To be Sung on the Water, S.558) [4:55]
Hando Nahkur (piano)
No recording details provided

I must confess to not having heard of the Estonian pianist Hando Nahkur but a quick search on the internet informs me that this is his fifth CD and the first entirely devoted to Liszt.  As a Liszt fan, I thought this would be worth a listen, especially as it’s marketed as Volume 1.

The first piece is Liszt’s taxing transcription of Schubert’s famous song, “Erlkönig”, complete with plenty of octaves for the right hand to deal with.  The first time I listened to this, I wasn’t convinced somehow but I grew used to the disc and the remainder of the works on it, and I’ve come to appreciate it a great deal.  It’s a super performance, full of drama and fear as the Erlking approaches his target. The second track is the late work “La lugubre gondola” which is one of Liszt’s desolate late pieces and requires an entirely different technique from the earlier, more bravura pieces also on this disc.  I was very taken with the way he plays this; a feeling of misery, sadness and wistfulness pervades the whole piece. Another earlier work follows, the second of the two ballades which also exists in an earlier version with a virtuosic ending which is not as good as Liszt’s revision.  This piece was at one time frequently recorded but now seems to crop up less often on CDs and almost never in concerts. The opening is a menacing chromatic scale leading eventually to a striving theme which generates a huge amount of difficult playing for the soloist before some truly wonderful quiet sections in F sharp major.  The transitions here are handled perfectly and Mr. Nahkur’s singing tone really brings this to life. His pedalling is also spot on and doesn’t muddy the music at all – no mean feat. It’s a great piece which deserves to be recorded more often again. This is a wonderful performance, perfectly judged and cleanly executed. There is a real sense of terror in the more virtuosic violent passages and in the more reflective parts, there is some beautiful phrasing and playing.  The piece ends very quietly and peacefully and this is marvellously done here.

There follows the famous and often recorded so-called “Dante Sonata” from the end of the second book of the Années de pèlerinage. The opening tritones in octaves make an excellent introduction to the soundworld that Liszt was depicting – the entry into Hell. After the two or so pages of the introduction, with some excellent clipped endings of phrases (for example at 0’52’’, played as indicated in the score), the piece proper starts off at a tremendous rate.  I’ve heard this piece live several times and on disc many times, and the D minor section where the piece really begins is not often played sufficiently lamentoso or quietly – but this is not the case here.  The contrast when things get loud and powerful later on is brilliantly brought to life.  Rhythmic control is essential in this work; everything here is flawless and the piece, with all the different changes in mood and pace, works as a coherent whole.   Things quieten down again about five minutes in, as the music becomes more languorous and searching, but then things quickly build up to a very difficult section which I find the hardest part of the piece, with large stretches in the right hand and very delicate playing required to bring out the tune.  This is all done magnificently but doesn’t last for long as the atmosphere of peace is quickly dispelled and demonic playing is required once again. The earlier themes are then modified, distorted and recombined with one another before another very quiet and beautiful section in D major - heard from 13’54’’. Here Mr. Nahkur controls everything so tightly that when the opening bars return distorted but in a major key, it comes as quite a surprise.  The closing pages of the work are a headlong rush marked Presto to the conclusion and the huge D minor chords.  This really is a superb performance full of dread and moments of beauty.

The fifth item here is extracted from the set of ten pieces which Liszt entitled “Harmonies poétiques et religieuses” which evolved through several versions over a number of years to reach their final published form.  The third piece is “Bénédiction”, a gorgeous work with lots of added central harmonies to the tune.  Much of the piece is in F sharp major, a key which Liszt often used for religious works. The opening theme is extremely effectively played and goes through several alterations throughout the first part of the piece which is in three sections.  The middle part could be almost called an intermezzo and leads seamlessly into the final bit which is a further modification of the themes from the opening. Interestingly, here he appears to be using a different edition from the one that I’ve played and the differences, although minor, are a shock.  However, they are perfectly in keeping with the atmosphere of the work and so are not a problem. I love this piece; I played it in concert while at university and have a special affection for it. Mr. Nahkur clearly relishes it, too, and plays with magnificent clarity throughout. The little increases in volume and tempo are spot on and the whole thing holds together very well.  His excellent singing tone really shows up well here – this is my favourite piece on the disc and an absolutely wonderful recording of this work. I should point out that in recordings this work varies in length from roughly 13 to 22 minutes (Cortot suggests playing it in 12 in his edition) and I tend to prefer the slower end of this range as the details stand out better and the atmosphere is better evoked.  This rendition plays for 17’37’’ and is just right. Wonderful stuff.

The penultimate piece on the disc is the twelfth and final piece from the Études d'exécution transcendante (Transcendental Etudes) entitled “Chasse Neige” (which I prefer translated as “Whirlwinds of Snow” rather than “Blizzard” as the cover has it).  Anyway, here Mr. Nahkur once again proves he can play ferociously difficult works poetically and very well. The stand out part for me is towards the end where you can easily hear the rumbling chromatic thirds in the left hand.  This is a breath-taking performance in which he does not put a finger wrong.  I hope he decides to record the remainder of these Études as he clearly has the correct temperament and the superb technique required to do this.  Lastly, as a bookend to the disc, there is another of Liszt’s numerous Schubert transcriptions, this time the famous “Auf dem Wasser zu singen”.  This contains lots of opportunities for Mr. Nahkur to show off his singing tone as well as his virtuosity. Liszt’s writing requires the pianist to play the descending tune in the right hand along with the chords in the left and the right hand providing the base of the chord.  This is dealt with perfectly here and the piece, as it continues, becomes more difficult, leaping around while still projecting the tune clearly. This is done very nicely here in this lovely transcription.

This is a splendid Liszt recording, clearly designed to show the pianist’s range of technique and it does so admirably.  It’s generously filled at just shy of 80 minutes and it is well worth seeking out a copy. My only minor quibble is that there are no cover notes; however, there is plenty of information on the internet about the works here so this is not really a major issue.  I wholeheartedly recommend this recording to anyone who likes piano recordings as it is not just the performances which are excellent but also the recorded sound. I look forward to hearing volume 2.

Jonathan Welsh

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