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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Paraphrase de concert sur Rigoletto (Verdi) (1859) S434 [7:50]
12 Transcendental Études, S139 (1852) [66:02]
3 Etudes de concert S144: No. 2: La leggierezza (1848) [5:28]
Boris Giltburg (piano)
rec. 2018, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, UK
NAXOS 8.573981 [79:30]

To succeed in the Liszt Transcendental Etudes, many say that a pianist must find a proper balance between the dazzle and the musical substance. I disagree. Both those elements are baked into the music - it’s Liszt and you can’t separate them. It’s not a balance that a pianist seeks with these seemingly opposing characteristics—it’s a marriage. Here Boris Giltburg, winner of the 2013 Brussels-based Queen Elizabeth Competition, understands that and makes a very fine case for his well-reasoned approach.

Though Giltburg doesn’t short-change the virtuosic and fiery qualities of the music, he favors the poetic side of Liszt. Thus, Ricordanza and Harmonies du Soir are played with broad tempos and their melodies caressed to yield a most lush and Romantic take on the music. Giltburg has nice legato phrasing, milking the former for all its sentimental beauty and the latter for its stardust passion. Paysage is similar in character to these pieces, though more serene and seraphic. Here, Giltburg imparts a sort of religious air to the music, building toward and finally reaching an ecstatic, yet utterly peaceful, conclusion.

The mischievous and gossamer side of Liszt comes across more than adequately in Feux Follets, though the tempo could be a little faster. In Giltburg’s hands, then, the music strikes you as more playful than ethereal or otherworldly - or devilish. The brighter, brilliant pieces, like the Molto vivace (No. 2) and Eroica emerge with plenty of energy and color, thanks in great part to Giltburg’s clear articulation and clean technique.

Darker pieces like the ominous Vision and the menacing Mazeppa are well played, again with great clarity and precision. But “clarity and precision” may be too much of a good thing in the former etude, as they undercut the sense of mystery and darkness somewhat. Still, Giltburg’s performance is convincing in its mostly epic and imposing manner. In Mazeppa there’s plenty of fire, heft and color, though the music could benefit from a more feral or even reckless approach in the outer sections. The middle section is splendidly played, though.

Among the remaining etudes, Chasse-neige is rather unique, quite in a class by itself, an early example of Impressionism. It is full of tension and menace, but filled also with sadness and passion, and yet it depicts an act of indifferent nature—a snow storm. But as the snow piles up with wind whirling, one hears (at least I do) the struggles of life building and encroaching. Giltburg delivers perhaps his finest performance in the set here: the ubiquitous tremolos begin softly, but grow steadily and ominously, the pianist subtly heightening the tension as the swirling comes on to provoke greater anxiety, greater menace. The music reaches a powerful climax, and the ending is forlorn and sad. Chasse-neige may be the finest masterwork in the set, though some will prefer Feux Follets.

The Rigoletto Paraphrase and La leggierezza, serving as bookend fillers here on an already well filled disc, are both performed well. The latter piece is especially excellent; I can only say I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a better version. The sound reproduction on the disc is vivid and well balanced, and the album notes by the pianist are very informative. Among competing versions of the Transcendental Etudes, Claudio Arrau on Philips is very similar to Giltburg in his approach. Arrau’s version has served as one of my favorites, along with the more driven and more thrilling Vladimir Ovchinnikov account, now on Warner Classics. For those wanting a good brisk version, Boris Berezovsky on Apex, at just over sixty minutes, is quite compelling. Lazar Berman on Melodiya from 1963 is very impressive technically—and persuasive interpretively—delivering an utterly thrilling if sometimes overly aggressive version. So, although I would give Ovchinnikov a slim edge over everyone else, Giltburg is in the running for one of the top spots in the Liszt Transcendental sweepstakes.

Robert Cummings



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