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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Nocturne No. 3 Liebesträume (1850) [04:38]
Piano Sonata in B minor (1853) [30:13]
Première valse oubliée (1881-85) [3:20]
La lugubre gondola (1882) [8:46]
Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses, S.154 (1849): No. 7, Funérailles [12:12]
Vardan Mamikonian (piano)
rec. Hessischer Rundfunk, hr-Sendesaal Frankfurt am Main, 20-22 February 2012
DYNAMIC CDS 730 [59:08]

I have only come across the Armenian pianist Vardan Mamikonian once before. That was several years ago on an Orfeo CD where he played, amongst other things, a very fine performance of the Liszt Piano Concerto no. 1 in E flat. I was duly impressed. His name is not very well known in the UK, though he has given a recital in the International Piano Series at the Royal Festival Hall recently, and also performed at the Wigmore Hall. He was born in 1970 in Erivan (Armenia) and, after early piano studies, attended the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with Valery Kastelski and later with the renowned Lazar Berman. He has been the winner of several piano prizes. On this Dynamic CD, he returns once again to Liszt, with a programme including the Piano Sonata in B minor, together with four of the composer’s shorter piano works. 

Liszt’s B minor Sonata, dedicated to Robert Schumann, was composed between 1852 and 1853 and published the following year. It is an innovative work, technically demanding, and requiring a pianist with great virtuosic skill to bring it off. As well as this, the player needs to have poetic insights. The Sonata is cast in one movement and is made up of six themes which undergo transformation as things progress. The performer needs to understand the work’s cyclical structure, keep it as a single cohesive unit and integrate the themes into one overarching sonata-form movement. This is big-scaled playing. Mamikonian gives us a very fine performance and meets the Sonata’s challenges admirably. There are a lot of notes in this work, and this version is completely uncluttered. He maintains the drama throughout, highlighting the moments of tension, in contrast with the more expressive passages.
Like Horowitz in 1932 (Naxos Historical 8.110606) and Argerich in her recording of 1971 (DG 447430-2), he successfully makes the distinction between the big dramatic parts and the quieter lyrical sections, endowing the latter with poise and sensitivity. He does not, however, possess the wonderful palette of colour that Horowitz had, nor the great pianist’s breathtaking filigree finger-work in scale passages (e.g. at 8:14 - 8:40), or his lightning octaves. Claudio Arrau in 1989 (Philips 464713-2) endows the lyrical passages with more poetic insight, and is more tender and expressive in the quieter passages. Sadly, his overall performance is too ponderous for my taste, having been recorded at the end of his long career. Having said all this, Mamikonian is able to traverse the Sonata’s wide range of emotions and deliver an enriching performance, one to which I would certainly return.
Amongst the other pieces on the CD, Funérailles from the Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses is the most frequently recorded. A fairly substantial elegy made up of four distinct sections, it is often played in isolation. It is worthy of comparison with other recordings. I enjoy the way that Mamikonian, like Brendel in his 1991 recording (Philips 4758247), builds up the introduction to bar eighteen when the ‘battle trumpets’ come in and then sets just the right mood for the funeral march. The third section is a beautiful A flat melody. That said, he does not make the melody sing as much as Arrau in 1983 (Philips 4805090) or touch on the wistfulness and tenderness of Jorge Bolet’s 1983 recording (Decca 410115-2). Finally, there is the triumphant end with the octave passages reminiscent of the middle section of Chopin’s A flat Polonaise Op.53, written seven years earlier. Some performances I have heard are too ‘barn-storming’ for my liking, but Mamikonian strikes exactly the right balance.
The remainder of the CD is made up of three short works: the Première Valse Oubliée, the late desolate piece La Lugubre Gondola and the ubiquitous Nocturne no. 3 Liebestraum. Each is beautifully played, the pianist showing a great affinity for Liszt’s music.
Overall, this is a very fine CD, with performances that will stand up to repeated listening. The piano sound is bright and forward, the overall effect being extremely good.
Stephen Greenbank 

Masterwork Index: Liszt sonata