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
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.
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.
Concerto No.2 in A major
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
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.
(Dance of death or Dance macabre) Paraphrase
on the ‘Dies irae’ for piano and orchestra
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 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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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