Liszt: Piano Recital
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An index to the excellence of Leif Ove Andsnes's Liszt recital is that he makes familiar works exciting and fresh-sounding and obscure ones persuasive and accessible. Andsnes turns the "Mephisto" Waltz No. 1 from a tired circus stunt into a tone poem daring in its effrontery and voluptuous in its lyricism. He plays the "Dante" Sonata without the usual penny-awful bludgeoning and sentimental blustering and lifts its treatment of love, chaos, and redemption to an exalted level. The infrequently performed "Andante lagrimoso" (No. 9 of the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses) is haunting in its unceasing alterations between pain and serenity. And in late works--such as the Second and Fourth "Mephisto" Waltzes and the "Valse oubliée" No. 4--the pianist shows us how far Liszt had traveled from romanticism toward both expressionism and impressionism, making us understand how these works lit the paths of composers as diverse as Debussy, Schoenberg, and Bartók. If you buy only one recording of Liszt's piano music this year, make it this. --Stephen Wigler
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This Liszt recital (recorded a decade ago) announces the major trajectory of Andsnes in the realm of the great music to the kingdom of the very few super-class pianists. Three Mephisto Waltzes gain their unimpeachable versions here. It is for the first time that I don't listen them as warhorse of technicality, but as musically motivated utterances of a romantic composer whose agitated life brought him finally to Church. The other two pillars of this recording are the marvelous Ballade No.2 and "Apres une lecture de Dante" (from Annees de pelerinage - Italy), performed in grand style by displaying a plethora of colors and giving rise to a overwhelming gamut of feelings.
A super class pianist in a super demanding repertory!
The bulk of this program is devoted to lesser known Liszt, tending toward the later, more enigmatic phase. For instance, the Valse oubliee no. 4 and Mephisto Waltz no. 4 aren't in conventional waltz time, have no melody as such, and are reluctant to find a tonal center. Since this music was written for the private rather than public Liszt, earlier generations shrugged it off, but modern pianists like Andsnes are intrigued by how late Liszt prefigures twentieth-century techniques. There is also a continual effort to mine Liszt's vast output for pieces that deserve wider airing. Two candidates, the Ballade no. 2 and Mephisto Waltz no. 2, are included here. I remain doubtufl on both counts. Liszt's idiom includes a lot of wasted notes and outright boilerplate. When he is high-minded he reaches for deeper, generally lugubrious moods but retains the same gimmicks; one soon grows tired when there is no compensation of memorable melody or circus thrills.
My favorite Liszt is the music inspired by scenery, especially the first two books of the Annees de pelerinage. Andsnes plays a work that could easily be included in those collections, a dreamy elegy inspired by an island in the Rhine where Liszt spent an idyllic summer or two, titled 'Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth' (it refers to an ruined nunnery on the island). For those who incline toward the religious Liszt, a pose I've never seriously believed in, there's the Andante lagrimoso, inspired by a single tear, the subject of a poem by Lamartine. I find its melancholy generic, but others consider this a highly personal expression.
As with any Liszt recital, one's reaction will rest on a baseline of respect for him, either high or low. Mine is somewhere in between the uncritical worshipper and disgusted rejection. But many pianists love him without reserve, it appears, leaving aside those who have a complete allergy (Schnabel, Serkin). Andsnes is exemplary to the point of being dry-eyed, which means that this is an excellent recital if you don't mind the absence of passion.