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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Sonata in B minor, S178 [31:52]
Berceuse, S174/ii [9:37]
Années de Pèlerinage. Deuxième Année: Italie, S161 - Sonetti del Petrarca Nos 47, 104 & 123 [20:37]
Réminiscences de Norma: Grand Fantaisie after the opera by Vincenzo Bellini, S394 [16:33]
12 Lieder von Franz Schubert, S558 - No 12 Ave Maria [5:28]
Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)
rec. 19-22 October 2020, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Reviewed as downloaded from digital press preview
DECCA 485 1450 [84:29]

Love or loathe Liszt, I suspect the Sonata in B minor would secure most votes as his greatest composition, at least for the piano as a solo instrument. The composer’s inspiration brings a more consistent and disciplined focus on seriousness of intent, expressive range and formal development not always found elsewhere in his huge output. Even given the large number of notes written for the keyboard by his illustrious predecessors, Liszt must surely be one of the most prolific note-scribers for the piano in the history of music. The Sonata stands in splendid isolation demonstrating how less can be more, and as the channel from Beethoven and the early Romantics through to Brahms, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Ravel and beyond. Not until his very late works did he pare down his music again to discover a new way forward.

An inescapable Everest of the repertoire, the sonata has always been a challenge. Recordings have been legion, but few pianists have successfully gone the extra mile to comprehensively explore the ascent and descent, while also providing the context of the all-encompassing view from above and below – in Liszt’s case Life and Death, Heaven and Hell, Sacred and Profane, with points in between revealed by his special brand of smoke and mirrors.

Uncannily, Benjamin Grosvenor’s scrupulous articulation of just the two opening unison bass octaves immediately offers prime bait for the whole journey. A pulse is jolted as though waking in the coffin described in Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Premature Burial’ published in 1844, nine years before the completion of the sonata. Grosvenor unerringly fires a chemistry that is interpretatively cogent, flexible and breathtaking in technical assurance. His clarity of texture, weighting of chords, balance of inner voices, nuance of phrasing, telling use of pedal or complete lack of it when appropriate, plus an acute sensitivity to Liszt’s extremes of contrast explore the whole range of the keyboard to produce a major miracle.

Revisiting long-standing yardsticks by Arrau, Brendel (both Philips/Universal) and Zimerman (DG) finds Grosvenor charting the cyclic framework and nourishing the broad expressive spectrum of the work with a freer, more diverse and contrasted palette. The only match I could find for this exalted level of prowess and spontaneity is the early Horowitz recording from 1932 (Warner). Even with the Russian’s slight textual amendments and a few inaccuracies, both pianists tap into the prime energy of the Lisztian melting-pot like no other. Except perhaps for the unique Cortot in 1929 (Warner), who still demands to be heard ‘warts and all’ for possibly the most free-wheeling recreative diabolism the sonata has ever enjoyed. The composer would surely have been on his feet had he lived to hear it – and not heading for the exit sign.

The sonata is followed by the rarely heard second version of Berceuse from 1863, which takes its cue from Chopin, but in considerably more sombre mood. This is followed by an astutely-chosen selection of the composer in other guises – Italian travel guide to Love via three Petrarch Sonnets, master of the operatic paraphrase and song transcriber. In all these works, Grosvenor consolidates his Lisztian empathy with insight and integrity whatever the idiom, and always at the service of the composer. The poetry of the Petrarch Sonnets is both ardent and sensitive. Even with something as outlandish and extravagant as the Réminiscences de Norma, a silk purse of transcendental magic is conjured from a potential sow’s ear, echoing Liszt’s tribute to Bellini as well as spotlighting the great paraphraser himself. The transcription of Schubert’s Ave Maria is beautifully voiced with what sounds like a sleight of three hands, supreme with no hint of saccharine, and all captured in sound of sovereign clarity to match that of the pianist.

This is Benjamin Grosvenor’s first recording to feature the works of just one composer. The notes tell us that he was introduced to the music of Liszt by his maternal grandfather, himself a pianist and member of the Liszt Society. Sadly, both maternal grandparents passed away early last year, but due to lockdown Benjamin was unable to play the Ave Maria arrangement requested by his grandfather for the funeral. The new album is dedicated to both his grandparents’ memory.

Ian Julier



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