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Romantic Piano Masters
Mariam Batsashvili (piano)
rec. 2021, Siemens-Villa, Berlin WARNER CLASSICS 9029629061 
Georgian pianist Mariam Batsashvili was applauded for her previous CD of Liszt and Chopin (Warner Classics 90295427863) and I foresee this album reaching greater heights. There is more Liszt and Chopin here and she has added music by César Franck, Sigismond Thalberg and Franz Schubert to create a portrait of 19th Century romantic pianism at its best. This well rounded picture includes the familiar but also some works that, while they may be less familiar, are by no means fillers, rather they are pieces that hold their own alongside their august companions.
She begins with a spell-binding performance of Franck's Prélude, Fugue et Variation in the arrangement for piano by Harold Bauer. There is a wonderful sense of timelessness in her handling of the opening theme and her rubato is subtle and sympathetically attuned to the harmonic changes. She also colours imaginatively whether that be the delicate textures at 2:48 or the ringing sonority of the chords immediately preceding the fugue. She follows it with Thalberg's Grand Caprice, his fantasy on themes from Bellini's opera La Sonnambula, the Sleepwalker and for all its virtuosic elements it is this sense of colour and texture that informs her playing. Whilst several of Liszt's opera fantasies are still popular Thalberg's have been dismissed as formulaic, falling by the wayside despite being championed by the likes of Earl Wild, Raymond Lewenthal, Cyprien Katsaris and even more extensively in recent years by Francesco Nicolosi and Mark Viner. It is a shame because many of them, this fantasy included, contain a wealth of creative and technical imagination. We are accustomed to hearing incredible playing nowadays but such moments as the change from a simple cantilena treatment of Ah! Non credea mirarti to its decorated version clothed in trills and arpeggios is played here with an unruffled ease that is remarkable and Batsashvili's singing tone is absolutely constant throughout, never fighting to be heard even with among technical challenges that rival any of those found in Liszt's music. If Thalberg played his music with the kind of masterly conviction that Batsashvili does one can imagine how he was seen as a serious rival to Liszt.
It is doubtless Thalberg's self-imposed limitations to which he owes his music's decline in popularity; he was content to write in the same style throughout his career and then retire at the height of his powers – a master certainly but master of a relatively small kingdom. Liszt on the other hand was constantly changing, innovating and rethinking. The youth who wrote the valse de bravoure in 1835 was different to the composer who, some three decades later, tackled the challenges of recreating Wagner's sound world on the piano and it is perhaps his most famous Wagner transcription that Batsashvili plays next, the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. In a way is also one of the hardest to bring off successfully. The sustained orchestral sound that Wagner calls for at the climax is not really the piano's naturally territory and Liszt had three solutions; a fortississimo tremolando, a bit of a go-to for a sustained effect, fast repeated chords, which can sound magnificent in the right hands and a grandly cascading arpeggio, the version that Batsashvili opts for and, to my ears, the most satisfying solution. Elsewhere she is magical with a velvet touch at Liszt's sehr weich (very soft) indication. Again Batsashvili impresses with her vocal lines and this extends to the song transcriptions that follow. The famous Serenade is played in the not so famous fourth version, written for Liszt's biographer Lina Ramann around 1880 with its slightly extended gossamer cadenza at the end. Batsashvili's concern, noted in the booklet, that Aufenthalt can sound march-like is clearly unfounded – she shapes the phrases such that we are aware of the poet's heartbeat and his pain and heartache reflected in the nature around him. The surging river, rauschende Strom and immovable rock, Starrender Fels in this poem make an apt connection to Liszt's own song Die Loreley played here in Liszt's second version from 1861. She responds sensitively to its multi-hued facets. The younger Liszt would have been keen to portray more of the torrents and the ruinous wreck – indeed his 1843 version does just that – but here it is the song of Loreley herself with which he is more concerned, Loreley whose song entrances the unwary sailors to their watery deaths. The river and the shipwreck are there but are now just another brief episode in the life of the ages old siren.
Such macabre tales fired Liszt's imagination and so too did the Faust legend and its devilish character; it inspired his mighty Faust Symphony and several Mephisto works as well as this transcription of the waltz from Gounod's Faust, an absolute masterpiece and one for me that stands, along with the Rigoletto paraphrase, as a work that matches in creative scope the work it is based upon. Peerless virtuosity is again on display but every note sings; Batsashvili never lapses into idle display and it is us, the listener, who are now entranced by the song in the central episode where Faust first spies Marguerite. An earlier waltz by Liszt is less familiar; the valse de bravoure may not have the Mephistophelean spice of the Mephisto waltzes or polka but all the diabolerie is present, especially in the final breath-taking galop that takes over from the waltz rhythm and we find Batsashvili absolutely at home in its insouciant good humour. Chopin's elegant Waltz in A-flat is world's away from Liszt devil-may-care writing but it has its own devilry in the two against three rhythm of the opening waltz, a melody that Batsashvili sings with ease and she is no less impressive in Chopin's fleet fingerwork. As a plus, as if one were needed, she plays the very final flourish of notes better than any I have heard. Schubert's wedding present waltz, treasured by the Kupelwieser family and worked up into a short piano piece by family friend Richard Strauss is a simple encore after all the meat of the recital. This gently, lilting waltz only betrays Strauss' hand at one sly twist in the harmony.
I was bowled over by this disc. Batsashvili reveals herself as a true virtuoso, finding that rarefied place that sits perfectly between composer, performer and composition while balancing virtuosity and lyricism with consummate ease. An easy disc of the year for me.
Contents César Franck (1822-1890) transc. Harold Bauer (1873-1951) Prélude, Fugue et Variation, Op 18 (1860-62) Sigismond Thalberg (1812-1871) Grand Caprice sur des motifs de 'La Sonnambula' de V. Bellini, Op 46 (1842) Richard Wagner (1813-1883) transc. Franz Liszt (1811-1886) Isoldens Liebestod S.447 (1867) Franz Liszt Die Loreley S.532 (1861) Franz Schubert (1797-1828) Ständchen S.560 No 7a (c.1880) Aufenthalt S.560 No 3 (1838-39) Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
Waltz No 5, Op 42 (1840) Charles Gounod (1818-1893) arr. Franz Liszt Valse de l'opéra Faust S.407 (1861) Franz Liszt Valse de bravoure S.214 No 1 (1835)
attrib Franz Schubert arr. Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Waltz in G-flat D.Anh.1 No 14 Kupelwieser Walzer