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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Between Heaven & Hell
Piano Sonata in B minor, S.178 (1853) [28:09]
Deux Légendes, S.175 (1863):
Saint François D'Assise: La prédication aux oiseaux [8:26]
Saint François De Paule marchant sur les flots [8:16]
Après une lecture du Dante - Fantasia quasi Sonata (Années de pèlerinage: Italie, S.161, No.7) (1849) [15:32]
Csárdás obstiné, S.225/2 (1884) [3:03]
Joseph Moog (piano)
rec. 2018, SWR Studio, Kaiserlautern, Germany
ONYX 4195 [63:44]

The intriguing title of Joseph Moog's latest release "Between Heaven and Hell", devoted to the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, gives a foretaste of the imaginatively constructed programme on offer. Moog is fascinated by the multifaceted character of Liszt, from great piano virtuoso and womanizer to his later years when his life took on a spiritual dimension, embracing minor holy orders in the Catholic Church. It's a life where there are many contradictions: good and bad, light and dark, heaven and hell. The contents of this CD have been creatively assembled to reflect this complex life with works that span its duration. At its centre is the B minor Sonata, a substantial single-movement edifice of almost 30 minutes, a symphonic poem for piano in all but name. The earlier Dante Sonata, only half as long, paints a picture of Hell with its tritones and dissonant harmonies and gradually, over its course, transports the listener to Heaven and Paradise. The later Legends give a hint of Liszt the pioneer, moving towards impressionism and paving the way for Debussy and Ravel. The Csárdás Obstiné was penned just two years before the composer's death.

The B minor Sonata, penned between 1852 and 1853 and published the following year, bears a dedication to Robert Schumann. Formed in one movement, its six themes undergo transformation during the course. What we have is a cyclical structure, where the themes are integrated into one overarching sonata-form movement. It's both bold and original. Moog contrasts the moments of tension and drama with the more expressive passages. The fugal sections are adeptly unpicked and the notoriously difficult passages, like the barnstorming octave passages at the start, are clean and allow for detail to emerge uncluttered. The interpretation is both imaginative and inspired. This rendition stands up well against some of the finest versions around. At the top of my list is the Horowitz 1932 HMV version and the young Martha Argerich’s on DG.

The Sonata's lesser sibling the Fantasia Après une lecture du Dante, or the “Dante Sonata” as it’s commonly referred to, is another work of dramatic intensity, encompassing a vast range of emotion. Moog's take on the work is one of heroism and grandeur. One feels the tension between its infernal elements, and the episodes of spiritual repose.

Religious music occupied the composer between 1860-1869, and it was in 1863 that he completed the two Franciscan Legends, St. François d’Assise: La predication aux oiseaux, and St. François de Paule: Marchant sur les flots, and dedicated them to his only surviving child, Cosima. He himself premiered them in Pest on August 29, 1865. The first vividly conjures up a world of birdsong, utilizing myriad pianistic effects. Moog's palette of colour confers a wealth of hues to this impressionistic canvas. St. François de Paule: Marchant sur les flots is a hymn of thanksgiving for a safe crossing of the Straits of Messina. The journey was not without its dangers, and the menacing chromatic scales bear witness to the event. Moog creates both nobility and terror in this stunning reading.

The Csárdás obstiné , from the end of the composer's life, is a captivating work, and its catchy rhythms with repeated octaves certainly impressed such composers as Debussy, Stravinsky & Bartók.

Beautifully recorded, the wealth of riches it contains makes this release a strong contender for your attention. Moog has a real affinity for Liszt, and I hope he will make a return journey in the future.

Stephen Greenbank

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