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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Vallée d’Obermann (1853) [15:27]
Sonata in B minor (1855) [30:13]
Aux cyprès de la Villa d’Este (1880) [6:22]
La lugubre gondola No. 2 (1882) [8:11]
Dean Erjavc (piano)
rec. Paladino Media, Vienna, 2020

The Swiss pianist Dean Erjavc, born in 1991, has a strong affinity with the music of Liszt. The balance of pieces chosen for this recorded recital is imaginative. It is satisfying both as a complete entity and if played singly. The shaping and pacing of each piece is nicely judged, and the playing is never less than sensitive. Moreover, when faced with passages of virtuoso intensity, as in Vallée d’Obermann and the Sonata in B minor, Erjavc does not disappoint. Taken as a whole, the abiding characteristic of these performances is their sensitivity and dedication.

The piano sound is pleasing but regrettably the identity of the instrument is not revealed. The quiet playing captures a most pleasing sound, well served by the recording. While these characteristics are to be found in all four works, it is in the later pieces, Aux cypres de la Villa d’Este and La lugubre gondola, where the music is particularly well served.

Vallée d’Obermann is the most ambitious piece in the first book of the great three-volume collection of piano music, Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage). As also does the celebrated Sonata in B minor, it challenges a pianist in terms of shaping the large-scale structural demands of the music. Erjavc states an appropriately melancholy mood at the opening, encouraging the transformation ro a brighter, almost radiant mood during the final section.

Here and in the Sonata Erjavc needs to be compared with formidable alternatives, in the likes of Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel and – my personal favourite – Aldo Ciccolini. These great pianists offer something extra, something hard to define but nevertheless significant in the longer term. Nowhere is this more true than in Liszt’s most famous work for solo piano, the Sonata in B minor. This new recording brings satisfaction but there is no danger that it will eclipse the position of Brendel in terms of its significance in the catalogue. While undoubtedly a virtuoso showpiece for those talented enough to perform it, the Sonata is far more than a ‘display of fireworks’. The thirty-minute span contains an astonishingly wide range of moods, some of them particularly inward and restrained. The work closes with an extended epilogue, a veritable meditation, and it is a matter of the depth of feeling the performer brings to the experience.

Erjavc’s programme is well chosen, and also includes music from the later stages of Liszt’s career. The third book of Années de pèlerinage takes special inspiration from his time at the Villa d’Este in Rome. Aux cyprès de la Villa d’Este is a wonderfully atmospheric piece, a little over five minutes. La lugubre gondola, which came right at the end of Liszt’s career, was inspired by the experience of visiting Richard Wagner and his daughter Cosima in their apartment at the Palazzo Vendramin on the Grand Canal. Within weeks of this visit, Wagner was dead. There is no question that the title and the music of this composition exude a special character of morbidity. The challenge for the performer is in maintaining the musical line at a slow tempo, while the control of dynamics and shading of timbre inevitably have much priority in the character of the music. This performance faces up to these challenges, and is therefore a highlight of this interesting Liszt recital.

Terry Barfoot

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