Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Fantasie and Fugue on “Ad Nos Salutarem Undam” S259 (transc. Ferruccio Busoni, BV B 59) (1850) [28:45]
Sonata in B minor S178 (1852/53) [32:28]
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
rc. April 2009, Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center, State University of New York, Purchase NY.
BRIDGE RECORDS 9337 [61:20]

Having greatly enjoyed Garrick Ohlsson’s Chopin via the Hyperion label I was intrigued to hear what he would do with one of the cornerstone solo works of the 19th century. Liszt’s Sonata in B minor is not quite the tough nut one might imagine, and despite a lack of any big tunes and a certain aura of enigmatic impenetrability its deserved popularity does derive from a clarity of memorable thematic content, high drama, and quite a significant amount of lyrical tenderness.

This is a fine recording from the Bridge label, and I like Garrick Ohlsson’s performance. He creates a nice sense of anticipation in the enigmatic opening, is dramatic and dark with Liszt’s turbulent theme and its development, opening out with fine grandeur in the transition to a very nice poetic feel in the slower section from about 5 minutes in. Not all recordings divide this piece into different tracks, but here we are given four main sections with access points which can be very handy for study purposes. The spectacular passages are given a sense of full abandon, and while the inner voices could sometimes be clearer there can be no denying Ohlsson’s technical chops in dealing with Liszt’s demands. He doesn’t make it sound effortless, but nor is there ever a feel of going beyond the edge of control. The prayer-like Andante sostenuto is very fine, taking us to an entirely different and entirely tranquil world, and the final Allegro energico with its fugal counterpoint is uncompromisingly hard-driven but not lacking in touches of eccentric wit. Despite this work’s fearsome reputation, Ohlsson actually makes the Sonata in B minor a good deal more approachable than some other players, and I’ve learned a good deal through his healthily sanguine approach to the piece.

There are numerous good recordings of the Sonata in B minor around. Arnaldo Cohen on the BIS label (see review) is more gruffly dramatic and extreme than Ohlsson, creating a wider range of contrast which brings out the sostenuto centre of the piece very effectively. Louis Lortie is more accurate than Cohen in the wilder passages on his Chandos recording, but more overtly expressive – in the middle of the first movement for instance – obtaining more of a songlike melodic line but shaping these with rubati which may not always appeal on repeated listening. Mykola Suk on the Music and Arts label is also acclaimed, as is Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion. I don’t have a particular favourite amongst this rather cursory handful of comparisons, but would point out that Garrick Ohlsson’s recording is rather up against it in actually beating the best of the competition. It’s very good indeed, but if you want to be gasping in amazement and rooted to your chair with angst and ecstasy then the likes of Lortie and Cohen will go further. If however you’ve been put off this piece in the past and are seeking a new ‘way in’ then Ohlsson may well be your man. I like his clarity and sense of human scale in the work, and came away feeling more inspired than cudgelled.

The coupling here, the Fantasie and Fugue on “Ad Nos Salutarem Undam” started out as a work for organ, and as the opening promises it gives us even tougher piano noises than those of the Sonata, Ohlsson’s massive power even sending the recorded level into mild distortion at peaks on my system. Busoni is responsible for a good deal of the extra oomph in the piano writing for this version of the piece, adding “arpeggiated figuration and chordal repetitions that give the solo piano version a thrilling hyper-virtuosic character” as described by Robert Arctor in the booklet notes. This is indeed a pianistic tour de force to which Garrick Ohlsson is more than equal, though there are moments of sometimes quite magical repose which help us survive the onslaught. I have to say I prefer the organ original with its multitudinous kaleidoscope of colours, but this is certainly a potent and impressive performance and Ohlsson makes as convincing an argument as I can imagine for this version, though I doubt it’s going to become an easy-listening favourite.

This is a release which will have its appeal for piano fans and fanatics. I don’t feel it pushes aside the great recordings of the Sonata in B minor, but do feel it earns a place amongst numerous respected alternatives. You won’t find the Fantasie und Fuge much elsewhere in the form in which it appears here, so there’s at least one big excuse for acquiring this CD, and I very much doubt you’ll be disappointed with either of these great works or their skilful guide.

Dominy Clements

A respected alternative rather than first choice, but still worth considering.