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Jugendstil berrut LDV100
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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.3: Tempo di Menuetto [10:55]
Symphony No.5: Adagietto [9:22]
Symphony No.6: Andante moderato [17:23]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Verklärte Nacht [29:51]
Beatrice Berrut (piano)
rec. 24-26 July 2021, Studio 4, Flagey, Belgium
All arranged for piano by Beatrice Berrut
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview

Here’s a novel idea: works by Mahler and Schoenberg as if they had been given the concert transcription treatment by Liszt. The transcriptions are by the pianist, Beatrice Berrut, herself and stay very close to the Lisztian tradition. The influence of well known works such as the Dante sonata and the Jeux d’Eaux and especially the B minor sonata are clearly audible. There is therefore a third composer present on this recording. It is more than just an intriguing notion. It is one that works.

Liszt’s task was to get the listener to forget about the original and, in the era of recorded sound, Berrut’s is even tougher. Why bother listening to Mahler on the piano when his symphonies are so readily available in all their orchestral splendour? Whilst she stays much closer to the originals than Liszt ever did, Berrut sets these pieces out as works for piano and not orchestral pieces played on the piano. She does this triumphantly in her version of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night which seems to me an important addition to the virtuoso piano repertoire and not just a curiosity.

The Mahler pieces suffer a little from being “bleeding chunks” (to use Tovey’s description of orchestral extracts from Wagner operas) where the Schoenberg is given complete. A typical example of Berrut’s approach comes 5 minutes into her transcription of the slow movement of Mahler 6. The notes Mahler wrote are surrounded with the pianistic textures of the vision of paradise from the Dante sonata. It would be easy to sniff at this as being a little obvious but as a listening experience it is stunning. Again and again, I was confronted by how well Liszt goes with Mahler and Schoenberg and how flexible and relevant Liszt’s piano techniques remained right into the 20th century.

Liszt was obviously the supreme master of the piano and throughout this recording I marvelled at how idiomatic Berrut’s transcriptions sound. Particularly, in the Schoenberg, I very quickly forgot about the original scoring – in either chamber form or for larger forces. This would be exceptional enough on its own but Berrut’s transcriptions go further than just giving us a version of these pieces. We don’t think of, for example, the Ravel version of Pictures at an Exhibition as just an orchestration and the same point could happily be made about the pieces on this recording. Berrut has an uncanny ear for matching the right Lisztian effect to each bit of the other composers’ music. Liszt provides a door for her to reimagine this music completely in pianistic terms and the depth of her knowledge of Liszt appears to be so extensive that her choices seem almost intuitive in their insights.

Before going much further, it would be remiss of me not to mention that Berrut plays this style of music to the manor born. There is a lot of Liszt in her discography and buried amongst page after page of self indulgence in the liner notes she does make the point that she has “dedicated her life to serving Liszt”. I suppose such ripe language is probably essential to getting under the skin of Liszt though I can’t imagine Alfred Brendel indulged in it much and it didn’t seem to do his Liszt performances any harm!

Thankfully, it is Berrut the arranger and pianist and not the writer I am reviewing and what a pianist she is! She positively revels in great gorgeous torrents of notes. This is true romantic playing. Not merely ripe and passionate but quixotic and sometimes grotesque, simple one moment and florid the next. On the other hand, she evidently has a ferociously sharp musical brain that shapes the longer term narrative of the Schoenberg with an unerring sense of how its many patterns should hang together from the tolling funeral bells at the opening (where the sound world of Liszt’s Aux Cyprčs de la Villa d’Este is powerfully evoked) The sense of release at the end is staggering. The waves of music ripple like the gold fabric in a Klimt painting, catching the light in the gloom of this transfigured night. This is an idea echoed in the visual imagery of the cover of the album.

Another significant contributory factor to the success of this project is the fine Bōsendörfer piano used and the depth and richness of the recording of it from La Dolce Volte. It is an extremely characterful instrument with a bass as rich as chocolate and a glittering top end. The sound isn’t as dense as that from a Steinway which helps with the many loud chordal passages in the Schoenberg. It also possesses a wonderful singing tone which Berrut exploits to the hilt.

I have dithered a little over whether to give this recording the accolade of Recommended as, away from it, I wonder if it is really that good. As soon as I start listening to it again, however, all such doubts vanish and I find myself surrendering once again to its magic. I very much hope she isn’t done with this idea. Is Mahler 9 ā la Liszt going too far?

David McDade

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