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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Works
Alfredo Perl (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Yakov Kreizberg
rec. 1997-1999 Sendesaal Radio Bremen, Germany (solo piano), 2003 BBC Maida Vale, London, UK (Concertos 1 & 2, Totentanz)
OEHMS OC1900 [4 CDs 265:03]

This is a satisfying Liszt collection, very well played. The three individual discs of the solo piano works were first released by Arte Nova Classics, and I was first alerted to Alfredo Perl’s qualities though the issue in 2000 of the Transcendental Studies. Here they are assembled together with the two Piano Concertos and Totentanz made a little later in London with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Yakov Kreizberg. Oehms have done useful service with the release of this low-priced reissue, even though each of the four discs is still available separately.

Disc One is wide-ranging, with early and late, lyrical and dramatic works from various publications. Sposalizio, from the second volume of the Années de pèlerinage makes a most ingratiating opening to the first disc, its chaste melody simply phrased, the subsequent denser passages kept in scale. The fifteen-minute Ballade No. 2 in B minor is a bigger beast, dramatically intense, with virtuoso fire aplenty, not least in the stormy passage for broken octaves. The enigmatic later works are represented by the next three brief items, En rêve, Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort, and Unstern!. Each is cool and questing in Perl’s handling of their elusive, veiled expressive manner.

The longest (and greatest) work on disc one, is the Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude from the collection Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. In fact Perl’s timing for this is 20:15, almost the slowest account I know. In sequence of slow to fast we have Arrau (Philips) 18:59, Stephen Hough (Virgin) 17:48, Brigitte Engerer (Mirare) 16:52, Michael Korstick (cpo) and Garrick Ohlsson (Bridge) 16:18, Duchable (Erato) 16:13. The two extreme outliers I know are Leslie Howard’s (Hyperion) 14:27 and Kun Woo Paik’s (Virgin) 22:25. This suggest a consensus around 16-18 minutes for the piece, but also – since these are all fine Lisztians and none of these accounts are failures – a work which can take a variety of approaches. Not every listener will stay the course at this pace, but Perl’s account is one I found convincing; it has finesse, poetic sensitivity, and a sense of absorption in the work reflecting the poem of Lamartine that gave the work its name, and which is used to preface the score. And what do timings matter when the mood is one of timelessness ? As Lamartine writes:

When barely on my brow a few days have slipped by, it seems that a century and a world have passed;
That is the mood Perl captures here. It is rudely shattered by a virtuoso warhorse to close the disc – a coruscating Mephisto Waltz No. 1.

Disc Two has more essential Liszt; the three Petrarch Sonnets from the Années de pèlerinage (Italie), bookended by the two sonatas, the B minor Sonata and the Dante Sonata. Perl’s account of the B minor, by common consensus the composer’s greatest work in any genre, faces a crowded and competitive field. Comparisons are legion, but it does seem as if the most recommended versions take about 30 minutes overall. Too much longer than that, and the work, one of the most integrated and organic of the 19th century, can hang fire, or even show why it was once heard as rambling! Perl’s timing is 30:09, and still more to the point the tempo relations between sections are convincing, as are the transitions between them. The Dante Sonata has a more overt programmatic element, related to Dante’s Inferno, but its episodes also serve as sonata sections. Perl manages to have it both ways in this Fantasia quasi Sonata, evoking the fantasy while clearly delineating the sonata’s formal progress. The Petrarch Sonnets are played with due attention to the agitated moments as well as to the dreamily lyrical passages. Each performance is good, but the popular Sonnet No. 104 is perhaps the pick.

Disc Three is different in being devoted to the entirety of a single publication, the twelve numbers of the Transcendental Studies, S139 in Liszt’s final 1851 version most often heard today. A transcendental piano technique is essential for these of course, but so too is a feeling for Liszt’s poetic temperament, since these pieces are more than technical exercises and contain more challenges than technical ones. The fourth of them, Mazeppa, was subsequently turned by Liszt into an orchestral tone poem. Its drama is still effective in its piano original when played as excitingly as Perl plays it here. If Perl’s Feux-follets does not eclipse Richter’s legendary version (whose has?), he still negotiates the formidable technical challenge well enough to do sufficient justice to its shimmering quality, suggesting the fluttering of butterflies. In the glorious Harmonies du Soir, another piece which is as much a tone poem as a study, he builds impressively to its majestic climax, before a gentle leave-taking at its quiet close. For some reason the booklet lists only numbers one to seven of these studies, but all twelve are on the disc.

Disc Four is different again, as Perl is joined here by the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the two piano concertos and Totentanz, conducted by Yakov Kreizberg. In the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, S124 Perl has the measure of the rhetoric needed for this stirring display piece. His opening flourishes are imposing, or mercurial, as required. He and Kreizberg sound at times as if they are collaborating in chamber music, listening and responding to each other. Perl again takes his time in the Quasi adagio second movement, while the Allegretto vivace is neatly characterised, and the final Allegro is martial and animated as marked. The Piano Concerto No.2 in A major, like the first, has its good moments without always setting the pulses racing, but then No.2 has more poetic moments of relative stillness. Its third section (track 7) features an eloquent cello solo, and here and elsewhere the BBCSO under Kreizberg are fine accompanists. Totentanz fares best of these three concertante works, from the ‘Dies Irae’ opening in orchestra and piano, to an emphatic conclusion.

The piano (and orchestral) sound is basically good, if occasionally clangorous at the top, and there are adequate, if brief, notes on the music in the booklet. As an affordable overview of Liszt’s piano music this will have its place for the range of the choices and the competence, to say the least, of the execution. Other selected surveys exist, especially abundant since the anniversary year of 2011, but none that I know has this particular selection. If the contents suit, this will not disappoint.

Roy Westbrook
Disc 1:
Sposalizio (Années de pèlerinage II, S. 161 No. 1)
Ballade No. 2 in B minor, S171/R16
En rêve - Nocturne S207
Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort, S203
Unstern! Sinistre. Disastro. S208
Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S. 173 No. 3)
Mephisto Waltz No. 1
Disc 2:
Piano Sonata in B minor, S178
Sonetto 47 del Petrarca (Années de pèlerinage II, S. 161 No. 4)
Sonetto 104 del Petrarca (Années de pèlerinage II, S. 161 No. 5)
Sonetto 123 del Petrarca (Années de pèlerinage II, S. 161 No. 6)
Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi sonata (Années de pèlerinage II, S. 161 No. 7)
Disc 3:
Transcendental Studies, S139 Nos. 1-12
Disc 4 :
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, S124
Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, S125
Totentanz, S. 125

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