November 10, 2016
(++++) PIANO PROWESS
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsodies for Piano (complete). Vincenzo Maltempo, piano. Piano Classics. $24.99 (2 CDs).
Liszt: Grande Fantaisie Symphonique on Berlioz’ “Lélio”; Totentanz. Daria Telizyn, piano; Kyiv Symphony Orchestra conducted by Igor Blazhkov. Claudio. $16.99.
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; Wagner: Tannhäuser Overture; Liszt: Orpheus. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Daniele Gatti. RCO Blu-ray Disc. $42.99.
Liszt’s 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies, 15 written in 1848-1853 and collected by him as a set, and four added much later (1882-1885) as a kind of afterthought or postscript, are a prodigious achievement for any pianist to negotiate – and nonetheless have had a bad reputation for years because of an underlying error in their provenance. Liszt got the foundational assumptions of this music exactly backward: he based it on Romany (Gypsy) tunes that he heard and that he believed to be authentic folk music from which later Hungarian music derived, when in fact the Romany had picked up and adapted existing Hungarian tunes and made them their own. The error, which Liszt wrote about at length in a far-reaching but completely wrongheaded book, soured many in Hungary at the time, when there was considerable nationalist fervor (in which, indeed, Liszt participated). It also led, in more-recent times, to dismissal of the Hungarian Rhapsodies as mere display pieces. Display pieces they surely are, but “mere” they certainly are not. They require prodigious technique that, in a really fine performance, must be engaged strictly in elucidating the music’s structure (typically a slow/fast one) and exploring the rhapsodies’ fascinating rhythms and complex harmonic lines – not just showing off the pianist’s ability to get through the works in the first place (although displays of proud virtuosity are certainly not out of place). What makes Vincenzo Maltempo’s readings for the Piano Classics label so engrossing is that Maltempo genuinely thinks about these works in musical terms – he explores them rather than exploiting them, which in this repertoire is no small feat. The six rhapsodies that were orchestrated by Franz Doppler (with revisions by Liszt) – Nos. 14, 2, 6, 12, 5 and 9 – show Maltempo’s thoughtful approach particularly well. Now much better known in their orchestral guise, the works here sound fresh and exude a mixture of charm and intensity – yes, even the thrice-familiar No. 2. Maltempo, whose name is one of those delicious ironies of the music world, is judicious in selecting the speeds of the slow and fast sections, never exaggerating the slower portions of the works so as to make the contrast with the faster ones more emphatic. He understands that the music as written contains quite enough thematic and rhythmic contrast without the pianist over-engaging in rubato or drawing overmuch attention to this detail or that. Indeed, although rubato is inherent in the design of this music, Maltempo uses it with such care that it seems part of Liszt’s original structure rather than a deviation from it (even an appropriate one). Similarly, Maltempo’s cadenza for No. 2 – Liszt recommended that pianists create their own – fits the music very well while still bearing the performer’s own stamp; and that is exactly what a cadenza should do. Maltempo also does a fine characterization job in the three short, late works, Nos. 16-18, which are redolent of a style very different from that of the earlier pieces (and from that of No. 19) and can be difficult to fit into the set as a whole. Maltempo makes them an extension of what has come before, not an appendix to the earlier works – evidence yet again of his thoughtfulness as well as virtuosity. Listeners who know the Hungarian Rhapsodies only through the six in orchestral form are missing a lot. This release shows just how much more there is to these pieces, however mistaken their academic provenance may have been.
Liszt was an inveterate arranger, expander and advocate of the music of other composers, sometimes creating out-and-out display pieces – a performance necessity for the greatest piano virtuoso of his time – and sometimes treating others’ work surprisingly gently and even with something approaching devotion, if not quite reverence (as in his Wagner transcriptions). Many of Liszt’s arrangements are quite well-known and are part and parcel of the repertoire of modern virtuosi. Some of his flights of fancy, however, are almost completely unheard and unheard-of, such as the one he created for piano and orchestra based on Berlioz’ Lélio, or the Return to Life. Berlioz’ work is itself rarely heard: it is the successor to his Symphonie fantastique and is a stage play with melodrama and interspersed songs, an innovative format but an awkward one. And Liszt’s Grande Fantaisie Symphonique, which was not published until 1981, contains questions of provenance: it is by no means certain that Liszt himself did the orchestration or even worked on it, as he did on Doppler’s. Despite all this, a Claudio re-release of a 1990 Ukrainian recording of the work is fascinating and very much worth hearing for the rarity of the repertoire and the skill of the pianist. She is Daria Telizyn, a highly talented Canadian of Ukrainian descent who died in 2005 just before what would have been her 45th birthday. Telizyn had quite a way with Liszt – her 1987 performance of the Sonata in B minor remains outstanding – and she had plenty of technique to handle the half-hour Grande Fantaisie Symphonique, much of which is based on a brigands’ song that takes up little time in Lélio but provides all the vigor Liszt needed for a grand display of pianistic technique. Telizyn gets good, if scarcely outstanding, backup from the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra under Igor Blazhkov, which falls short of matching the pianist’s intensity but handles the material well enough. The pairing of pianist and orchestra, and their slight mismatch, is equally clear in the Totentanz that fills out this short (47-minute) recording. Telizyn goes after this familiar work with intensity and abandon, while Blazhkov keeps things more mannered and even-tempered. This is nevertheless a very fine performance that stands as a tribute to a top-notch but little-known pianist as well as offering a chance to hear some Liszt with which very few listeners will be familiar.
Liszt appears as well on a new Blu-ray release from the usually superb Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, on the orchestra’s own label. Here his Symphonic Poem No. 4, “Orpheus,” gets effective if rather middle-of-the-road treatment as directed by the Concertgebouw’s new chief conductor, Daniele Gatti. There are no revelations here, and the orchestra does not really sound its best – perhaps a result of the recording, which is not up to the usual standards of Blu-ray releases. The issue is not the quality of the Blu-ray process itself but that of microphone placement, which seems to have been rather distant: the Concertgebouw, so notable for the fullness of every section, here sounds rather thin. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the entire recording was made at live performances – but such recordings, of the Concertgebouw and other orchestras, need not sound compromised with the use of modern equipment, and this one does, if only a bit. Similarly, in Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture, the chorale-like elements lack the fullness of which the Concertgebouw is capable; and Gatti’s overall approach, while certainly workmanlike and effective, sheds no new light on anything in the music. And then there is the Berlioz work that is intended as the primary attraction here. The familiarity of Symphonie fantastique leads to some excesses in its performance – and sometimes, it seems, to some holding back to avoid such excesses. Gatti handles this music with poise more reminiscent of the Classical era than would be expected or appropriate for an ultra-Romantic piece like this one. Here the somewhat thin sound is harnessed in the name of clarity, suggesting that Gatti as much as the engineers wanted the Concertgebouw to come across as it does here. The symphony’s first movement is on the cool side, emphasized by the highly refined playing; the succeeding waltz is uninspiring; and the central Scène aux champs is simply disappointing – the whole movement is shapeless, and the gathering storm seems almost incidental. The succeeding Marche au supplice is more plodding than dramatic, and the finale is too controlled to convey any sense of abandon – with bells that seem barely there at all. Gatti has a fine reputation that led the Concertgebouw to bring him aboard, but this (+++) release shows little that would justify the orchestra’s decision. There is nothing really major wrong here, but nothing inspiring, either. And when a work is as familiar as the Symphonie fantastique, it is not unreasonable to hope for something inspirational to justify yet another recording of the music.