Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Volume 1: Death and Transfiguration
Kenneth Hamilton (piano)
rec. 2020/21, Cardiff University School of Music
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
PRIMA FACIE PFCD167/8 [76:57 + 75:03]
In our purist or dare I say Puritan age with regards to the score, I have listened to far too many frankly dull recordings of Liszt’s piano music. I won’t name names but listening to them it is hard to imagine that Liszt held Europe in thrall. Perhaps, I began to wonder, it is a case of tastes changing permanently: that, like Charlie Chaplin films, you had to be there at the time. The last really convincing new Liszt recital I have heard was the late Nelson Freire’s and that was way back in 2011. It was also a recording dripping with good old fashioned Romanticism. Just as I was beginning to despair of ever hearing Liszt that really set the heart racing along comes Kenneth Hamilton.
To be clear, Hamilton’s Liszt is not that of Horowitz. The set opens with Funerailles from the Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses, an old Horowitz war horse. Hamilton doesn’t thunder quite as terrifyingly as the Russian master but then who does? What he does do is paint a vivid tone picture for us. The Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses can, in the wrong hands, sound like a great deal of ado about very little but I was gripped by Hamilton’s powerful vision of each of the four included on this set.
Similarly, does he match the white heat ferocity of Martha Argerich in the B Minor Sonata? No but I don’t think I have ever heard an account of this work that brought out so richly the fecundity of Liszt’s inspiration. I was transported to an epic voyage through a Byronic landscape with heart stopping vistas at every turn. The ending is a slump back into Nibelheim.
What Hamilton seems to get, and clearly revels in, is the role of imagination in this music, that in comparison to our prosaic age, Liszt’s was a poetic one. Hamilton possesses all the technical prowess one could wish for but, listening to him, it is, for once, audible that the virtuosity of Liszt’s music is needed to match the excessive nature of his inspiration. Nothing is half measure: despairs are fathoms deep, joys sky high. Every colour should be vivid, even lurid sometimes, but equally when Liszt is delicate, he must as delicate as possible. Hamilton follows him through every twist and turn as gripped by Liszt as I was by his playing. To experience Liszt and Hamilton at their most delicate I would suggest the strangely neglected En Rêve.
I can’t go much further with this review without mentioning Hamilton’s ability to spin out a long, Romantic melody. Amongst so many enticing moments, try the last five minutes of the Ballade No.2. To describe it as melting would be an understatement. Note too how even when Liszt festoons the big tune in octaves, Hamilton’s first devotion is to the melody.
As part of his attunement to Liszt’s era, Hamilton is unafraid of the composer’s religious enthusiasms. I have heard the Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude done as Hollywood religious epic and, more often, as a prim Sunday School address but seldom done, as here, as if the pianist really meant it. Even Brendel’s great early version (recently appearing spruced up on Beulah) seems to maintain a certain ironic distance. With Hamilton, it is like eavesdropping on Liszt’s prayers and it really works. A piece I thought I could happily never hear again comes back to life.
This reflects the great success of this set in providing us with a rounded portrait of the shape shifting genius of Liszt. A sensitive reading of Weinen Klangen has Liszt evoking the organ loft. Into what appears to be a straight rendering of the Schubert G flat impromptu steals Liszt the inveterate arranger and tinkerer – it will either delight or set your teeth on edge, possibly both. But it all makes for a diverse and diverting couple of hours with, for me at least, not a hint of the routine. When I first read that Hamilton is planning a follow up to this recording featuring transcriptions and arrangements, I heaved a sigh and thought, “Are there really pianists today who can pull such music off convincingly any more?” Now I can’t wait to hear it!
It is not fair to compare a performance of the virtuosic but rather empty Transcendental Etudes with the deeper works in this set but Hamilton’s emphasis on Liszt the poet of the piano takes him much further into Liszt’s often bizarre but always charismatic sound world than Trifonov’s electric fingers on his much fêted recording. It is true that there were moments such as in the Csardas Macabre where I wanted something more demonic. Even there, Hamilton’s insistence on taking care over the voicing of the chords draws out the weirdness and wonder of Liszt’s harmonic language.
A word next about the sound as it is one of the greatest pleasures of the disc. I recently listened again to some of Bolet’s superb Liszt recordings and found that there was a fairly unpleasant metallic clang to the sound. These recordings are now over 30 years old but this metallic quality is all too common in the Liszt recordings I sampled in preparing this review. I suspect some of this is down to the performers but the overall impression is of hardness and the mechanical. Bolet, I should point out, remains a wonder notwithstanding. The word I keep coming back to with this new recording is richness and that applies equally well to the recorded sound. It made me realise how often Liszt is recorded in the equivalent of a garish spotlight. This is like hearing Liszt in a candlelit salon, full of shadows for demons, assignations and prayer vigils.
One of the very greatest of Liszt recordings, Brendel’s of the late piano music, convinced me that I had underestimated the composer and that he belonged among the greats. This recording by Kenneth Hamilton performs the same service. But I would prefer to leave the last word to the music: sample the little Romance S.169 on the second CD. It would melt the hardest Liszt hating heart.
Previous review: John France
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Funérailles (Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173/7) (1849) [11:58]
Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173/3) (1851) [15:29]
Csárdás Macabre S.224 (1881-82) [7:12]
Pensée des Morts (Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173/4) (1834, rev.1851) [12:14]
Nuages Gris, S.199 (1881) [2:40]
Sonata in B minor, S.178 (1852-53) [27:23]
Ballade No 2 in B minor, S.171 (1853) [14:36]
En rêve (Nocturne), S.207 (1885) [2:09]
Abschied (Farewell): Russian Folksong, S.251 (1885) [2:30]
Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth, S.274 (1841) [6:08]
Dem Andenken Petofis, S.195 (1877) [3:36]
Ave Maria (Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173) (1846) [6:29]
Transcriptions by Liszt
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Impromptu in G-flat major, S.565b (1840) [6:19]
Prelude on Weinen, klagen, Sorgen, Zagen S.179 (1859) [5:43]
La Lugubre Gondola, S.200 (1884-5) [4:21]
Romance "O pauraque donc," S.169 (1848) [3:21]
Romance Oubliée, S.527 (1880) [3:28]
Die Lorelei, S.273 (1856) [6:29]
In Festo Transfigurationis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, S.188 (1880) [2:31]
Richard WAGNER (1813-83)
Isoldens Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, S.447 (1867) [7:11]