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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Between Heaven & Hell
Sonata in B minor, S.178 (1853) [28:09]
Deux Légendes, S.175 (1863) [16:42]
Aprčs une lecture du Dante - Fantasia quasi Sonata (Années de pčlerinage: Italie, S.161, No.7) (1849) [15:32]
Csárdás obstinée, S.225/2 (1884) [3:03]
Joseph Moog (piano)
rec. 2018, SWR Studio, Kaiserlautern, Germany
ONYX 4195 [63:44]

Although I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Joseph Moog’s previous recordings on the Onyx label, up until now, I’ve not heard him play any Liszt which is odd because one of his earliest recordings was on the Claves label and was of both piano concertos and Totentanz. He also recorded Liszt’s amazing “Réminiscences de Norma” (S.394) back in 2009 on a CD with various other transcriptions which I listen to via a streaming service and it is superb.

Anyway, the disc begins with the epic Sonata in B Minor. The opening of the work is played with a suitably sinister tone before the brash opening in bare octaves starts things off. The tempo near the beginning of the work is fast but not so fast as to lose any detail. Additionally, there is light use of the pedal throughout so there is no blurring and all the notes stand out clearly. The lead up to the D major ‘Grandioso’ theme at 3’01’’ is very well handled – there is a noticeable pulling back in speed and power and this works perfectly. After that short interlude, the music then changes character to a beautiful little passage before becoming agitated and then again reflective. These changes in tempo are well handled and flow together nicely. There are some very agreeable touches at 5’50’’ where you can really hear the clever melody hidden away in the texture. The faster music again returns with some very precisely executed octave passages and lots of leaping around, all performed flawlessly. I really enjoy the way the little ‘fugato’ passage about 8 minutes in sounds, all the details are present and correct before the massive tremelandos in the right hand and a loud statement of one of the themes from the opening of the work. After this, the loud chords (in F minor and then D flat major) herald a quiet ‘Andante sostenuto’ section which is beautifully played but perhaps a little too slow for an ‘Andante’ - no matter as the sound is gorgeous. Interestingly, Mr Moog’s playing here is unlike any that I’ve heard before, the chords seem to be integrated differently but I can’t work out how. The ‘Grandioso’ theme then returns before a very stormy passage with lots of work for the pianist. I always judge performances on the way that the very quiet and affecting music from bars 418 – 453 is played, and here the music is very directly played and the delicate figurations are marvellous. Liszt then brings back the menacing descending scales from the opening of the work before the weird ‘Allegro energico’ section with lots of scurrying for the left hand. This is very rapidly played but the precision is fantastic. After this things get more powerful again but Mr Moog follows the hairpin dynamic markings exactly which is what Liszt wanted. Immediately afterwards, the ‘Grandioso’ theme returns again but in B major and that leads into some more reflective music before the tempo and difficulty build up again leading to a powerful ‘Stretto’. The way he controls this and the huge descending octave passages afterwards is perfect, the speed of the ‘Prestissimo’ is also spot on. The last 2 pages of the music (60 odd bars) alternate between the sinister grumbling theme and some F sharp major / B major slower material, all coupled very cleverly with the descending scales from the opening, before the wonderfully hushed closing chords. The very final note, a low B is so quietly played as to be almost inaudible. Overall, this is an excellent performance of the sonata. It is muscular and powerful but contains some real moments of beauty and some wonderful lucidity in the playing. In terms of performing time, it’s slightly faster than average at about 28 minutes. Brilliant stuff.

Next, we have the two Legends, the first depicting St Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds and the second illustrating St Francis of Paula travelling across the Straits of Messina in a home-made raft, made from his cloak after an argument with the ferryman. The first piece is full of imitations of birdsong and is beautifully played. Much of the piece relies on the pianists’ ability to play very quietly and negotiate the trills and tremelandos in the right hand. This Mr Moog manages excellently – there is some breath-taking playing here with the dynamics being perfectly observed. There is one much louder and simpler outburst towards the end of the piece and this is splendidly controlled. The piece ends quietly with more tweeting and trilling from the birds. There is an almost quasi-orchestral feel to his playing which works extremely well. The second legend is a much stormier affair. I’ve been familiar with the piece for about 25 years and played it in recital at university. It is a marvellous picture in music of the Saints struggle against nature. Here the tempo is spot on, all the tremelandos in the bass are cleanly executed and the tune, which undergoes several variations throughout the piece is always clearly heard amongst the other things going on. Of note are the horribly difficult passages in 3rds towards the end of the work, these are often muddied in performance but not here, they are fully audible and cleanly executed. The closing page of the music contains some very quiet music before a very virtuosic and difficult conclusion which is carried off here with aplomb. This is a stunning recording of these two works.

Next follows more thunderous music in the form of the so called “Dante Sonata”. I’m also very familiar with this work and have written several reviews of it on various recordings over the years. I don’t think I’ve heard a recording with as much of a sinister edge to it for a very long time. This doesn’t detract from my high opinions of the other recordings but I think this disturbing atmosphere here is very appropriate. Of course, this creepy effect is exactly what Liszt was trying to conjure up in sound. Anyway, the descending tritones at the opening of the work are struck very hard and, once things get going in a passage marked ‘lamentoso’, the really scary stuff starts. Interestingly, Mr. Moog holds back on the power until it is absolutely necessary and when he does play loudly, the effect produced is phenomenal. You can almost hear the cries of the damned in the strange harmonies and very virtuosic music of the opening few minutes. The work does have some quiet reflective passages, for example starting at 4’56’’ where the pedalling is marvellously controlled and the control is spot on. This quiet section leads into a part in F sharp major which has some interesting accents on the melody notes which is an effect that works very well. The playing at about 6’50’’ contains some fascinating playing so that the right hand and left hand almost act as a question and answer to one another. The hardest part of the piece (with the right hand executing big stretches and the left hand taking the melody) is absolutely beautifully played. After this, the music gradually increases in power and speed before the evil sounding tritones return and the atmosphere changes in tone to something much more ominous. Again here, the speed and virtuosity really is jaw dropping. I’ve always struggled with the section marked ‘con strepitoso’ and fff – getting the right hand to not overpower the left and to produce enough transparency to hear the tritones mixed with the chords is very hard but needless to say, this is not a problem here. Things do settle down at about 12’30’’ with what is widely thought to be a vision of Heaven. This peaceful little interlude doesn’t last long before the barnstorming virtuosity returns for the last few moments of this remarkable work. The last 4 pages are taken at a phenomenal pace with no fudges or slips and some wonderful interpretation. I do have to say that this is an incredibly demonic rendition of this work that works superbly on all levels! The speed of the repeated notes, especially near the beginning when the tune is in D minor and rumbles menacingly along is absolutely incredible and the clarity of the playing is excellent. This is a whirlwind performance of this work and is probably my favourite rendition of recent years.

Lastly, to round things off is a very rapid and spine tingling performance of the late piece, Csárdás obstinée. Much of Liszt’s late music is not often heard which is a pity as it contains some of his most experimental works. Often these later works are quiet and reflective and sometimes just plain miserable. However, this Csárdás is not any of this, it is a jolly, slightly strange manic romp with some very odd harmonies and is fantastically well played here.

Once again, I’ve run out of superlatives for this disc. The cover notes are interesting and informative, the recorded sound is clear and perfect and the playing is absolutely exemplary. Mr Moog has produced a marvellous disc of Liszt ranging from middle period virtuosity to one of the later, more intense works. Anyone who is interested in superb pianism should buy this disc as it is revelatory. Well done Mr Moog – I look forward to hearing you in more Liszt soon and I will have to get your earlier recordings as well!

Jonathan Welsh

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank

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