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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Liebestraum No. 3 in A-flat major, S.541 No. 3 [4:59]
Six grandes études de Paganini, S.141[28:09]
Consolation No. 3 in D-flat major, S.172 No. 3 [3:51]
Années de pèlerinage: 2ème année: Italie, S.161 No. 7 - Après une lecture de Dante (Fantasia quasi Sonata) [17:16]
Widmung (Liebeslied) in A flat major, S.566 (from Myrthen, Op. 25, by Robert Schumann, transcribed by Liszt) [4:49]
Rhapsodie espagnole, S.254 [13:49]
Shin-Haea Kang (piano)
rec. 2019, Frederich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg-Harburg
OEHMS OC1713 [72:53]

It is not often that you open up a CD case and find out that the pianist has been personally endorsed by none other than Martha Argerich – as has this one! I had heard of Shin-Haea Kang earlier but had not heard any of her recordings, so I was interested to hear how she plays.

The first item on the disc is the extremely famous and very often heard last of the three Liebesträume. There is a nonchalance and restraint to the playing here. Despite the familiarity of the piece, there are details here which are not often heard. It is a performance of average length in terms of playing time but in terms of feeling, it is far from average.

Next we have the six Paganini études which include the infamous La campanella with its huge leaps and repeated notes. Anyway, the first of these pieces is an exercise in tremolandos. Ms. Kang copes with this with considerable aplomb, making it sound easy. Her technique of pulling back the tempo slightly at the end of phrases might annoy the purists but in this work (and elsewhere on the disc) it works extremely effectively. The clarity in her right hand makes many details in the score stand out, especially between 4:20 and about 4:50. The second etude is marked Andante capriccioso, and here is especially capricious! Again, the clarity is excellent and the pedalling is, helpfully, very restrained. I like the clever and witty way she ends the phrases – it is supposed to be capricious after all. Lovely stuff.

Pianists often use La campanella as a virtuoso showpiece. Here, as earlier, there is a restraint to the playing which is exemplary throughout. The right hand is particularly clear; this makes the piece sound even more difficult than it actually is. Kang does not slow down at the end of phrases to the same extent as elsewhere – in this case it is the right thing to do. The ending of the piece is suitably powerful, very fast and marvellously done. The fourth of the set, written on one stave, is another witty and very fast little work. I like the way the pianist projects the base notes with her left hand, making it sound like a ping pong ball bouncing from one side of a table to the other. The judicious use of pedal really helps. The ending is taken at a tremendous pace, with a rather well placed ritardando as the piece draws to a conclusion.

The fifth étude, La chasse, features imitations of flutes and some fiendish fingerwork. None of this presents any problems for the pianist. The piece is dispatched very quickly, efficiently and wonderfully. The final étude is the famous theme and variations, used by numerous other composers. Here there is much witty playing. The theme is modified and enhanced by the use of ten fingers rather than four strings on a violin. The speed of some of the playing here is amazing but it fits well with the nature of the piece. Variation 5 (starting at 1:53) is especially interesting, and the clarity is amazing. Ms. Kang also observes the hairpins and rinforzando markings in variation 7; that is not often done, at least to this extent. The work gains in difficulty as it progresses but this poses no problems, and the conclusion is deftly handed. This is an absolutely brilliant recording of these six homages to Paganini, full musical insight and clever playing.

Next comes the famous D flat major Consolation No. 3. This is mesmerizingly played, full of nuance, peace, feeling and depth. It is given here an absolutely stunning performance.

There is an abrupt change of mood for the following work, the so-called Dante Sonata, which I have heard many times on many recordings, and several times live. This is a fantastic rendition. The opening is suitably scary, with its depiction of the descent into Hell. Despite the somewhat dark and bleak nature of the work, there are parts which are beautiful. There is some wonderful phrasing and control in the short Andante section at about 6:10, and some truly magnificent pointing up of the bass notes before the horrendously difficult section at 8:30 (where the right hand plays a myriad of detail while the left hand leaps about) before the sinister music returns. One thing which is different in this recording is the shortness and power of the attack on the chords. Many are struck very hard, and afterwards the sound dies away very quickly. This is especially clear in the senza rallantare section, where the bass chords are struck very sharply. This works very well here, and in the few bars before the Tempo rubato e molto ritenuto at 12:40. The music sounds like it leads very naturally into that part of the work. This section is magnificently played, the pedalling is spot on and the atmosphere of sadness and slight spookiness is perfect. The short Andante is enthrallingly played before the peace of these few bars is dispelled by some barnstorming virtuosity. The final three minutes of the work are marked with a variety of tempo directions and, on the whole, fast in pace. The playing is also brilliant, and the work thunders to a noisy conclusion. This is a super performance of this piece. There is much interest and shading in Ms. Kang’s playing, and the whole thing holds together magnificently.

We then have one of Liszt’s numerous transcriptions, one of the most famous: Schumann’s Widmung, which he originally wrote for his wife, Clara. I learned this piece fairly recently and I really do envy the way Ms. Kang is able to play it. There is a fluidity to the opening which is played in a way I have never heard it done. The central section flows very naturally from the opening. The reprise of the music from the start, when it returns, is suitably impassioned, and the work ends happily.

The final work on this recording is the wonderful Rhapsodie espagnole, well known but not that often recorded. That is a shame because it is a splendid piece; I have liked it for years. Speedwise, it is again taken at an average sort of pace (lasting about 13 and a half minutes). I really like the way Ms. Kang slows down before the start of the Jota aragonesa tune (at about 4:55). This is not something I have heard in any other performance. Here it works really well, and eases you gently into the following development of this theme. There is some really lovely playing at 5”35 (marked con grazia in the score) with a sense of hushed reverence. Again here, the fluidity of Ms. Kang’s playing is very apparent, and the clarity and intelligence of her playing is marvellous. Even the most difficult figurations in the piece are dealt with effortlessly in this performance. The last four-five pages, containing some very tricky writing, are played amazingly well. This is a super performance of a splendid piece by a spectacularly talented pianist. I have a new favourite recording of this work!

The case is plastic and cardboard bonded together, probably environmentally friendly. The booklet is also stuck inside, so it is impossible to lose it. Ms. Kang’s notes are well written and interesting. I would definitely put this as one of the top Liszt recordings that I have heard over the last couple of years. There is some utterly beautiful and intelligent playing here, and some splendid virtuosity. Ms. Kang certainly deserves the attention that she has received, and is clearly an artist to watch out for. I will be watching for news of her upcoming releases, since she clearly has plenty to say. She has a superb technique and innate musicality. Buy this disc!
Jonathan Welsh

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