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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Complete Soirées de Vienne
Valses-Caprices after Franz Schubert S. 427 (1852)
Alberto Ferro (piano)

It may seem strange that Liszt, the consummate showman of his time, should take an interest in Schubert, who seems temperamentally his complete opposite, but his interest was formed early and was serious and long-lasting. He transcribed many of Schubert’s songs, including two complete song-cycles, as piano solos and a number of other works as well. But these Soirées de Vienne fall into a slightly different category, in that they are more than transcriptions.

Schubert, like Mozart and Beethoven before him, wrote a number of dances, which he gathered into sets. They are short, tuneful, and almost completely ignored by recitalists. They do not fit easily into a concert programme nowadays and even specialists often neglect them. This was already the case in Liszt’s day and he did what is in effect a rescue job on Schubert’s dances. This was after he had retired from his virtuoso career and was based in Weimar, concentrating on conducting and composing. What he did was to take several Schubert waltzes for each piece of his own, fill out the sometimes sketchy piano writing and add introductions, links and endings. Altogether he drew on seven sets of Schubert dances and used thirtyfive individual numbers for his own work. You can see a full list of his borrowings in Leslie Howard’s sleevenote for his Hyperion recording, available here. There are none of those pianistic fireworks from his virtuoso career and his additions are tactful and appropriate. However, in the process of being recomposed by Liszt these waltzes have passed from being dances to being, like Chopin’s waltzes, portraits of dances. They are now concert pieces. Busoni considered these versions ‘unalterable perfection’ and the composer and Liszt expert Humphrey Searle said in his classic study, that they were ‘among the most successful things of this kind which Liszt ever did.’

At this point we can introduce Alberto Ferro. He is Italian, born in 1966, and has had what has become the conventional start to a pianist’s career, winning several competitions and going on to perform concertos and recitals across Europe. He has not so far made many recordings, but that of Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux has been well received. The choice of the Soirées de Vienne for his new recording is an imaginative one: there are not many recordings of this cycle complete and it certainly plays to his strengths. He has the technique to manage Liszt’s decorative writing with ease, but also brings a gentleness and subtlety which we associate with Schubert. His quiet playing is particularly impressive.

I like the way Ferro responds to the individual moods of these pieces. No 1 opens delicately, with the line in the tenor. In No 2 there is nice contrast between the lyrical first theme and the bouncy second. No 3 features some very Chopinesque writing, elegantly taken, while No 4 opens with a quotation from Beethoven’s sonata Op. 31 No. 3. No 5 has only two themes but constantly changing harmonies making up one of the longest of these pieces. The last three pieces are slightly more virtuosic than the earlier ones, particularly No 8. No 9 is really a set of variations by Liszt on a waltz by Schubert.

To add to Ferro’s excellent playing there is an equally excellent recording. There is a warmth and glow about the sound of his Steinway, with a firm bass and a glittering but not clattery treble. The sleevenotes are helpful, though they do not give in detail the originals of the pieces in Schubert, for which I refer you to Leslie Howard’s note mentioned above. Howard is also the main competitor to Ferro in this repertoire, as part of his recording of all Liszt’s piano music. I greatly admire many of Howard’s Liszt recordings but I like to hear other pianists too, and I was pleased to encounter both these works and Alberto Ferro’s playing.

Stephen Barber

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