Thursday, 16 May 2013

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, May 2013)

LISZT Works for Piano & Orchestra
Fabula Classica 2222 / ****1/2

Given that Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was possibly the greatest pianist-composer ever lived, his works for piano and orchestra are surprisingly short-winded. Both piano concertos of his run under 20 minutes, as if his brand of virtuosity was best served in short but sustained bursts. This anthology of historical recordings has only space for his Second Piano Concerto in A major, but it gets a coruscating yet seamless performance from the Chilean Claudio Arrau (with the New York Philharmonic and Dimitri Mitropoulos in 1943), one of the great Lisztians of our time.

The devil-may-care stance adopted by the mercurial Italian Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli for Totentanz, variations on the medieval chant Dies Irae, was entirely appropriate in his 1961 outing in Turin. He plays an edition that differs from the version commonly heard nowadays. The only caveat: this recording has the worst sound of all. The Hungarian Fantasy, a scintillating arrangement of his Hungarian Rhapsody No.14, sees the Briton Solomon in imperious form in 1948, eight years before his debilitating stroke. The genuine rarity is Malediction for piano and strings, an early work of astonishing prescience for its time, here played by a young Alfred Brendel in a stereo recording from 1958. Lovers of Liszt should not pass up this album of vintage performances.

Deutsche Grammophon 479 0088 / ***1/2

This album is a live recording from the 2012 White Nights music festival in Saint Petersburg, coupling two major repertoire works – Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition and Schubert’s Sonata in D major (D.850) – not often heard in tandem. In fact there is nothing uniting these works thematically or stylistically. The young German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott is technically secure in the Mussorgsky, but falls short on the element of fantasy that makes its disparate pieces so intriguing. She performs the original version, which means that Bydlo (The Ox Cart) begins loud before receding into the distance. She plays everything straight and there are no additions of her own to pique or surprise the listener.

In certain ways, the Schubert gives rein more to her imagination. The tensions of storm and stress are evident in the vigorous first movement, while the mastery of song comes to the fore for the slow movement. The Scherzo dances along its merry way before the good-natured humour of the finale, delicately crafted over a gentle tick-tock rhythm steals the show. The contrasting facets of Schubert’s troubled persona in his final years are keenly brought out, which more than makes up for the relative  disappointment of the Mussorgsky Pictures.      

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