September 07, 2006


Liszt: Piano Transcriptions of Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8. Konstantin Scherbakov, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Sarasate: Music for Violin and Piano, Volume 1. Tianwa Yang, violin; Markus Hadulla, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

     One set of CDs of impeccable virtuosity comes to an end with these releases, while another set, whose virtuosity is of a different type, begins.

     Konstantin Scherbakov continues his monumental task of recording Liszt’s piano music by completing his renditions of Liszt’s Beethoven symphonic transcriptions.  The CD of the Seventh and Eighth has been a long time coming: the previous CD of Scherbakov in this repertoire came out almost two years ago.  Was it worth the wait?  For fans of Liszt’s surprisingly well-mannered, carefully controlled transcriptions of Beethoven, the answer is: absolutely!  Scherbakov handles the very considerable technical demands of these works with aplomb, bringing out the multiple orchestral lines in just the right balance, as Liszt indicated in his carefully annotated scores.  Equally importantly, Scherbakov keeps his tremendous pianistic ability at the service of the music, so his technique never overshadows the notes.  This too reflects Liszt’s desires: unlike many of his other works, notably his opera fantasies, Liszt’s transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies are almost reverential in their attention to detail, inner voices and harmonic balance, and their care in preserving the original lines of the music – rather than expanding and transforming them.  As a result, these Liszt transcriptions remain in many ways pale copies of Beethoven’s originals.  But if Liszt had applied his genius for dramatizing other composers’ works to these, he would surely have produced something verging on the vulgar.  Too devoted to Beethoven to do that, Liszt produced respectful transcriptions that shed light on Beethoven’s compositional methods even as they give listeners an entirely new way to hear works that are now far more commonplace than they were in Liszt’s time.  Performances as sensitive and carefully controlled as Scherbakov’s show Liszt’s accomplishment in its best possible light.

     Pablo Sarasate’s works demand virtuosity of a very different sort.  His pieces for violin and piano stretch every violinist’s technique (except, perhaps, Sarasate’s own), standing nearly at the same difficulty level as Paganini’s music.  Sarasate wrote primarily for himself, so his works provide considerable insight into his own style, which clearly included some very unusual handling of pizzicati: they sound, at various times, like everything from guitar plucking to harpsichord notes.  The first volume in Naxos’ new Sarasate series was recorded by Chinese violinist Tianwa Yang when she was 17, in 2004 – the same year she received the Best Young Violinist in China prize from Seiji Ozawa.  Yang is all dash and fire here, and that fits the music exceptionally well.  These are works of great rhythmic vitality and considerable surface-level beauty, with no depths to plumb – ideal for a super-talented young violinist.  The main pieces on this CD are the eight Danzas Españolas, which for some unexplained reason are arranged very oddly: Nos. 2, 5, 1; then Capricho Vasco; Nos. 3 and 4; then Serenata Andaluza, Jota Aragonesa and Balada; then Nos. 6, 7 and 8.  This is a strange sequence that adds nothing to the CD’s effectiveness.  Effective it certainly is, though, especially in such fireworks-filled works as the two Habaneras (dances Nos. 2 and 8) and the Serenata Andaluza.  Yang’s youthfulness shows through in the quieter, more pensive works, such as Balada and Vito (dance No. 7): these tend to drag as one waits for speed and intensity that the works do not contain.  The pieces are also frustrating ones for the pianist: Markus Hadulla plays very well indeed, but what he is given to play has only minimal interest.  That, of course, is Sarasate’s fault and was surely his intention: there is nothing here to distract from the violin.  If there is also nothing profound offered, it scarcely matters: light-fingered skill is the name of the game here, and Yang has plenty of that.

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