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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat major, S.124 (1830-49, rev. 1853, 1856) [18:11]
Piano Concerto No.2 in A major, S.125 (1839-40, rev. 1849, 1861) [20:50]
Totentanz (Dance of death or Dance macabre), Paraphrase on the Dies irae’ for piano and orchestra, S.126, R.457, (1839-49, rev. 1853, 1859) [15:17]
Eldar Nebolsin (piano)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 6-7 September 2007, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, England. DDD
NAXOS 8.570517 [54:18]
Experience Classicsonline

The record catalogues are bursting at the seams with versions of these three popular scores. As soon as I took delivery of this Naxos disc I couldn’t help but wonder if there was room for this new version. 

I have used for comparison purposes the 1987 Boston recordings from Krystian Zimerman and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa on Deutsche Grammophon. Zimerman’s accounts are regarded by many, including myself, as the finest available in the catalogues. 

Liszt’s most important works for piano and orchestra are the two piano concertos and the Totentanz; all scores conceived during his virtuoso years. Influential musicologist Edward Dannreuther expressed a mixed view that the two Piano Concertos and the Totentanz, “would rank among the best concert pieces, were it not for the lack of weight and beauty in their main themes. As virtuoso pianoforte music these efforts are magnificent, the orchestration superb …” (Oxford History of Music, Vol. VI, ‘The Romantic Period’, Clarendon Press, Oxford (1905)). You should note that there is also a Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat major, Op. Posth. This was evidently composed around 1839, but it seems not to have been performed and was subsequently ignored by the composer. In 1988 Musicologist Dr. Jay Rosenblatt of the University of Arizona discovered various pieces of the score during research and made a reconstruction. 

Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat major

Liszt made his first sketches for the E flat major Concerto in 1830, undertaking serious work on the score in Rome around 1839-40. He seems to have completed it around 1849 with Joachim Raff assisting with the orchestration. Liszt made revisions in 1853 and more adjustments again, prior to its publication, in 1857. Dedicated to the piano virtuoso and composer Henry Litolff it would be hard to imagine more eminent performers at its 1855 premiere at the Ducal Palace in Weimar, Germany when the composer was soloist and Hector Berlioz conducted. Musicologist Jay Rosenblatt described the Concerto No.1 as, “Dionysian” (article on ‘Piano and Orchestra in the ‘The Liszt Companion’, Greenwood Press. Ed. Ben Arnold ISBN: 0313306893). Liszt biographer Humphrey Searle (‘The Music of Liszt’, Dover Publications, second revised edition (1966)) wrote that it “is not an entirely successful work” believing the Second Concerto to be, very much more successful”. It is this Concerto No.1, however, that has proved to be a more popular work with audiences and in the recording studio. 

In the E flat major Concerto Liszt provides unity within the sections of the score by employing several shared themes in ‘thematic transformation’. In fact, the composer Béla Bartók, a fellow Hungarian, acclaimed the score as, “the first perfect realisation of cyclic sonata form, with common themes treated on variation principles” (‘Bela Bartok Essays’ selected and edited by Benjamin Suchoff. University of Nebraska Press (1993). ISBN: 080326108X). The inclusion of the triangle in the third section has been the cause of considerable ridicule by detractors over the years. The influential Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick dubbed it “The Triangle Concerto” - a nickname used today with affection rather than sarcasm.

In the E flat major Nebolsin does a splendid job with the contrasting demands, working with Liszt’s inconsistent genius, with writing that is brilliant one minute and bordering on the vulgar the next. In the opening Allegro maestoso the confident Nebolsin takes the music briskly, developing considerable excitement. The violin part heard at 2:46-2:58 sounded rather self-conscious. Zimerman’s playing exudes assurance and panache together with the advantage of an underlying strength. His fingers float sensitively across the keys and the playing sparkles. By comparison I loved the splendid violin passage at 3:01-3:16. 

Nebolsin in the Quasi adagio provides sensitive playing that I found considerably moving. One cannot fail to notice the fine orchestral accompaniment. Zimerman’s tender and expressive playing in the Quasi adagio is notable, so achingly beautiful that it makes the piano glow with passion. His impressive interpretation in the contrasting central episode comes across cleverly like an aggressive tantrum. Ozawa’s Boston Symphony provides Zimerman with the finest possible support. 

In the third movement, marked Allegretto vivace - Allegro animato, the Liverpool orchestra’s triangle is hard to hear. In this movement Nebolsin plays with energy and bounce. I was especially impressed with his focus in the slower passages. Zimerman is in tremendous form providing a highly assured touch with vigour, swagger and considerable style. What is it with these triangle players as the Bostonian one is barely audible too? 

There’s urgency and enthusiasm from Nebolsin in the Allegretto marziale animato. Compared to Zimerman a touch more sensitivity and lightness at 0:59-1:24 would have improved the overall atmosphere. Nebolsin’s spirited playing of the Presto conclusion is impressive; exuding real confidence. There’s commanding playing of grandeur here in the closing movement from Zimerman. In the quieter passages one especially notices his feather-light touch as he glides over the keys. The Presto, finale is remarkably exciting and Zimerman brings the score home to an impressive climax. 

Piano Concerto No.2 in A major

Liszt began composing his A major Concerto in 1839 whilst in Rome. He revised the score on at least two occasions in 1849 and in 1861; finally publishing it in 1863. The first performance was given with Liszt conducting his pupil Hans Bronsart (von Schellendorff) as soloist at Weimar in 1857. To highlight the symphonic nature of the score it was named in the manuscript as a “concerto symphonique”. The A major Concerto is designed in one single continuous movement, divided into six sections, connected by the use of what Liszt described as “thematic transformation.” Jay Rosenblatt described the character of the A major Concerto as “Apollonian”. Humphrey Searle acclaimed it as, “remarkable” and that “the themes are far more interesting and capable of development” than the E flat major. A disparaging Searle thought that the transition into a march in the Finale was, “the one really weak passage” and that it had “all the vulgarity of second-rate military band music”.

Dreamy playing from Eldar Nebolsin can be heard in the opening Adagio sostenuto - Allegro agitato movement and this he develops with assurance and vitality. The RLPO brass and woodwind excel in a most pleasing performance. Zimerman performs in a masterly way with equally impressive orchestral support from the Boston players. One is aware of an exceptional gracefulness from Zimerman in the calmer passages that contrasts with playing of significant power and control in this dramatic and stormy music. 

Calm and relaxed playing characterises Nebolsin’s approach in the Allegro moderato which is flowing and controlled throughout. The RLPO too are in marvellous form, however, the solo cello part is played with confidence yet lacks beauty of tone. Zimerman offers stunning playing combined with a powerful authority. Ozawa’s well drilled band provides splendid orchestral playing and there’s a marvellously performed solo cello part. 

In the Allegro deciso Nebolsin adopts brisk speeds, playing with purpose, although, I would have preferred additional weight. I was struck by Nebolsin’s convincingly executed changes of mood. It is hard to fault Zimerman who plays with a vibrant energy and convincing authority throughout. The Allegro animato section that closes the score is given a performance by Nebolsin that is agile and vigorous providing a finale to bring the house down. Zimerman’s reading of the concluding section is high voltage with a great sense of passion. 

Totentanz (Dance of death or Dance macabre) Paraphrase on the ‘Dies irae’ for piano and orchestra

The Totentanz (Dance of death or Danse macabre) a set of variations for piano and orchestra was aptly described by Humphrey Searle as, “a work of astonishing dramatic power.” The passage of time may have obscured the facts, however, it seems that in 1838 Liszt was inspired by the magnificent frescoes titled ‘The Triumph of Death’ on the wall of the basilica in the Campo Santo at Pisa. In Liszt’s day the frescoes were attributed to Andrea Orcagna. Further inspiration came from a reminiscence of the Dance of Death at Basle by Holbein. Evidently full of inspiration Liszt felt compelled to compose a score for piano and orchestra comprising a series of variations that embodied the plainchant of the ‘Dies Irae’. The Totentanz was first sketched out by Liszt around 1839 and completed by 1849; undergoing subsequent revision. Liszt’s son-in-law, the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, was soloist at the premičre given at The Hague in 1865.

In the Totentanz I was struck by the sense of drama and foreboding that Nebolsin and the RLPO under Vasily Petrenko manage to communicate. One notices Nebolsin’s menacing tread in variation 1, the brisk rocking excitement in variation 2 and the bass-laden and threatening variation 3. I experienced the hymn-like variation 4 as serene and meditative that contrasted starkly with the severity and earnestness of variation 5. The frenzied activity of the Cadenza from Nebolsin’s nimble fingers is followed by variation 6 – very much evocative of a hero’s triumphant return home. The second Cadenza is effervescent and bursting with energy. Nebolsin and Petrenko’s players conclude this exciting and dramatic score with a tremendously performed Allegro animato interpreted with just a suggestion of the macabre. 

Zimerman and his Boston Orchestra under Ozawa project a more thrilling and confident reading of than Nebolsin and, it must be said, virtually all other interpreters. One notices Zimerman’s marked and highly effective use of dynamics throughout. I especially enjoyed variation 4 for the hymn-like episode from 4:03 (track 8) which is deeply meditative and from 6:57 in variation 5. In the first Cadenza both Zimerman and the Boston Orchestra provide superb playing, overflowing with drama and excitement. From 12:01 in variation 6 the gypsy-like episode is highly enjoyable and from 12:37 Zimerman noticeably and expertly cranks-up the intensity prior to the second Cadenza. The demonic conclusion to the Totentanz is thrillingly dramatic. I felt like jumping to my feet and shouting Bravo!

The competition is extremely intense for recommended recordings of Liszt’s two Piano Concertos and the Totentanz. For Naxos Nebolsin greatly impresses with great enthusiasm and vigour which he combines royally with innate musical intelligence. He is greatly supported by the admirable RLPO under their exciting and charismatic principal conductor Vasily Petrenko; who has presided over the recent revival of the orchestra's fortunes. Recorded in the RLPO’s home at the Philharmonic Hall the Naxos engineers have achieved a decent sound quality but it cannot match those rival versions from Zimerman on DG and Cohen on BIS.

My list is headed by the distinguished and exhilarating performances from Krystian Zimerman and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa. Playing with an astonishing degree of passion and assurance Zimerman is recorded at the Symphony Hall, Boston in warm and clear digital sound on Deutsche Grammophon 423 571-2.

There are many advocates for the excellently performed accounts of the two Piano Concertos from Sviatoslav Richter and the LSO under Kirill Kondrashin (Philips Classics Solo 446 200-2 (c/w Liszt Piano Sonata)). The two Piano Concertos were recorded by Richter in London in 1961 for Philips by the Mercury Living Presence team. The recordings have been remastered from the original three-track master tapes by the original Mercury producer the legendary Wilma Cozart Fine. Not surprisingly when compared to many of the modern digital recordings the Richter analogue sonics, although acceptable, are not of the same quality. 

Worthy of much consideration is a highly attractive four disc set of Liszt ‘Works for Piano and Orchestra’ containing fine versions of the two Piano Concertos and the Totentanz performed Nelson Freire with the Dresdner Philharmonie under Michel Plasson. Soloist Nelson Freire provides significant character and presence in performances recorded the Lukaskirche, Dresden in 1994 that were originally released on the Berlin Classics label. I found the sonics of these digitally recorded accounts satisfactory but not exceptional. The concertante works on this valuable set are performed by various soloists, orchestras and conductors on Brilliant Classics 99936 (c/w Liszt Wanderer Fantasie, S.366; Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Tunes, S.123; Polonaise Brillante, S.367; Lelio Fantasy, S.120; Ruinen von Athen, S.389; Malédiction, S121; De profundis, S.691 and Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat major, Op. posth. reconstructed by J. Rosenblatt). For more information about the Third concerto please refer to on-line article: New York Times, Archives Thursday, August 16, 2007. ‘Rediscovered Liszt Work in Premiere’ by Allan Kozzin. 

Also worthy of consideration is an admirable recent 2007 release, containing the same programme as the Naxos review disc. It is from Arnaldo Cohen and the Săo Paulo Symphony Orchestra under John Neschling. I enjoyed Cohen’s playing with its fine sense of smoothness of legato and without any fear of technical strain. The recording was made in 2005 at Săo Paulo, Brazil on BIS-SACD-1530. Sharing the same programme are the stylish and thoughtful performances from Jean-Yves Thibaudet with the Orchestre-Symphonique de Montréal under Charles Dutoit from Montreal in 1990 on Australian Decca Eloquence 442 8833. Despite being very fine neither Cohen nor Thibaudet can match the distinction and sheer scale of the dramatic contrasts provided by Zimerman. 

Other notable discs of the two Piano Concertos and the Totentanz include the 1972 recordings from Alfred Brendel with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Bernard Haitink on Philips 4767098. These cannot be ignored as the Penguin Guide has made the disc one of their select ‘Rosette Recordings’. Michel Béroff successfully recorded all 3 Liszt works in 1977 with Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Awarded ‘Key Recording’ status by the ‘Penguin Guide’ Béroff’s accounts are worthy of notice on EMI 5 69662-2 (c/w Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Tunes for piano and orchestra; Fantasia on themes from Beethoven’s ‘Ruins of Athens’; Grande Fantaisie symphonique on themes from Berlioz’s ‘Lélio’; Malédiction and Polonaise brillante in E flat major from Weber's 'L'Hilarité and Schubert/ Liszt Wanderer Fantasie). In 1994 Boris Berezovsky recorded, to considerable acclaim, the 3 Liszt scores with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Hugh Wolff on Warner Classics Apex 2564-62044-2.

Although the sound is beginning to show its age I still occasionally play the wonderfully stylish interpretations of the two Liszt Concertos from Jorge Bolet with the Rochester Symphony Orchestra under David Zinman. Originally recorded for the Vox label in 1979 I have the disc on volume 12 of ‘The Great Composer’ series and it is also available on Alto ALC1011 (c/w Liszt Sonata in B minor and Mephisto Waltz No.1). 

There has been much enthusiasm shown for the exhilarating and resolute 1968 Walthamstow Town Hall, London analogue account of the Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat major from Martha Argerich with the London Symphony Orchestra under Claudio Abbado. My Argerich version forms part of a two disc Franz Liszt compilation set with various artists on Deutsche Grammophon ‘Panorama’ 469 151-2 (c/w Liszt Les Preludes for orchestra; Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Tunes for piano and orchestra; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and No. 4 for orchestra; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 for piano; Sonata in B minor; Mephisto Waltz No.1 for piano; Feux follets for piano; Harmonies du soir for piano and Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude for piano). 

Another highly desirable recording of the Piano Concerto No.1 is the recently released 2006 Watford Colosseum recording from young Chinese soloist Yundi Li and the Philharmonia under Andrew Davis. Yundi Li does a magnificent job with Liszt’s widely contrasting demands, displaying assured and exciting playing that blends drama with considerable poetry. It’s on Deutsche Grammophon 477 640-2 (c/w Chopin Piano Concerto No.1). 

Looking back fondly to 1982 I remember my vinyl recording of the Piano Concerto No.1 in the sparkling and stylish performance from French soloist Cécile Ousset with the CBSO under Simon Rattle on EMI ASD 4307 (c/w Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No.2). I understand that Cécile Ousset’s recording, with the same coupling, has been released on compact disc on EMI CDC 7 47221 2; but as yet I have not located a copy for my collection. However, with versions of these three concertante scores in my collection as fine as those from Krystian Zimerman on DG, Sviatoslav Richter on Philips and now from Eldar Nebolsin on Naxos I doubt if I really need to.

Michael Cookson




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