I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Total Liszt

Franz Liszt:
Sposalizio, S161/1 (orch. Salvatore Sciarrino)
Totentanz, S126
A Faust Symphony, S108

Alice Sara Ott, piano
Brenden Gunnell, tenor
Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus, Simon Halsey, chorus director
London Symphony Orchestra, Antonio Pappano
Barbican Hall, London, 26 November 2017

Come to think of it, concerts devoted to a single composer – jubilees and special anniversaries notwithstanding – are quite unusual. The well-considered “Total Liszt” program from the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano gave ample proof that evenings like this do work and make perfect sense. “Total Liszt” put the Hungarian composer in a propitious light, offering variety, a discovery, but above all outstanding music-making and plenty of thrills.

Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt

The discovery came in the shape of Sposalizio, originally the sublime opening part of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, Second Year: Italy for solo piano, yet here in a 2015 orchestration by the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino (1947-). By using a modernist, sophisticated instrumentation (including bells and glockenspiel), Sciarrino pulls the work resolutely towards himself, yet the result is that the graceful evocation of the Marriage of the Virgin, as Liszt saw it in Raphael’s painting in Milan, ends up somewhere in modern-day Cinema Paradiso. Plenty of attention-grabbing sonic effects (piccolo and bass clarinet joining forces), with some weird pauses thrown in, and you were listening to the sound rather than the content. Although intently and lovingly performed by Pappano and the LSO, Sposalizio in Sciarrino-style was something of an oddity.

The following Totentanz grabbed the attention as well, but for very different reasons. Liszt’s fascination with death and the diabolical, partly fueled by his traveling and interest in arts, never found a more frightening expression as in this short work for piano and orchestra, adroitly variegating the Dies irae theme, as well as pushing the limits of harmony and piano technique. The Totentanz was given a knockout performance by pianist Alice Sara Ott. Appearing in a black gown, as if dressed for an infernal ball, she left little doubt she wanted to have a great time. And so did we.

The Totentanz has been in Ott’s repertory for some years and it’s clear she knows how to bring it with devastating impact. Her innate classical poise prevents her from pushing the piece over the edge, yet it’s exactly this flirting with the abyss which makes the Totentanz such an exciting ride. Alternately burning and melting the piano, she delivered the ferocious runs (including these jaw-dropping glissandos) with breathtaking speed, articulation and clarity, while the reflective moment in the fourth variation acquired a mesmerizing beauty in her hands. This was death equally creepy as well as beguiling. A close connection with Pappano and the LSO in great form added to the overall excitement and success. Alice Sara Ott received a thunderous applause and returned with a contrasting encore, the C-sharp minor Nocturne from Chopin in a ravishing gossamer delivery.

As rarely performed in the concert-hall as the Totentanz is the Faust Symphony in its complete 1857 version, including the finale with tenor solo and male-voice choir. Antonio Pappano offered overall a fine, often very beautiful, if eventually not entirely convincing reading of the Faust Symphony. Focused, attentive to every detail, coherently shaped and without a single drop in tension, the first two movements stood out: Faust appeared as a wild, edgy and volatile character, while Gretchen breathed tenderness and innocence to delight. Mephistopheles however would have benefited from more abandon and profounder work on the instrumental color. Perhaps it was the onslaught of the preceding Totentanz still fresh in mind, or simply the emphasis of the first movement which made Mephistopheles sound somewhat underwhelming. But in any case the contrast between the outer movements was too little pronounced, with Faust appearing as vivid and unsettling as his diabolic reflection. The “Chorus mysticus” finale, adding a spiritual dimension to the human conflicts evoked in the symphony, was however properly grand and powerful, with splendid vocal contributions from the American tenor Brenden Gunnell and gents from the London Symphony Chorus.

The playing of the LSO was a constant pleasure this evening, nary a weak link in the ensemble. With his detailed approach and care for orchestral balance, Pappano capitalized on the divided strings of the massive ensemble, highlighting the often brilliant writing of the symphony. Nowhere more so as in Gretchen, where Liszt at times reduces the orchestral forces to a chamber music scale. The admirable LSO woodwinds, especially Bobby Cheng’s oboe and Adam Walker’s flute, often in dialogue with groups of or even solo strings, always set the proper tone and atmosphere.

“Total Liszt” was a superb evening. Alice Sara Ott’s performance of the Totentanz was in a class of its own and in spite of some minor quibbles, A Faust Symphony remained a remarkable achievement as well. Running well over 70 minutes the symphony can be a daunting prospect, yet performances of such constant high quality as here by Pappano and the LSO are liable to convince you it has to be this way. The label of “heavenly length”, as in the case of Schubert’s later works, wouldn’t be inappropriate.

Copyright © 2017 Marc Haegeman


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Transcendental Liszt in double

Franz Liszt: Etudes d’exécution transcendante, S.139
Kirill Gerstein, piano
Myrios MYR019, SACD hybrid (64 min)

“Transcendental”
Franz Liszt: Etudes d’exécution transcendante, S.139; Two Concert Etudes, S.145; Three Concert Etudes, S.144; Grandes Etudes de Paganini, S.141

Daniil Trifonov, piano
Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 5529 0 – 2 CD (66:04 & 51:24 min)

Franz Liszt most likely had his bit of fun when he published his Etudes d’exécution transcendante. Although his final edition from 1852 may be more accessible than its earlier incarnation, as is well known even these aren’t studies for the beginner or the advanced amateur, but fiendishly difficult pieces (Daniil Trifonov describes them as “technically challenging poems” or “existential meditations”) for virtuoso pianists at the top of their game, and then some. Performing all 12 Etudes live in concert has long remained a rare feat, still both pianists considered here have successfully accomplished this several times. It wasn’t so long ago that the Etudes were the exclusive domain of mature Liszt specialists who tackled them on disc as the crowning achievement in this repertoire. Yet, Kirill Gerstein is 36, Daniil Trifonov is barely 25, and these are their first Liszt-only discs. Times are changing.

These new discs recorded in the studio are superb achievements by any means and can be recommended wholeheartedly. Both Russian pianists share an irresistible joy of performing. They traverse the Etudes with seemingly effortless ease and find a convincing balance between jaw-dropping virtuosity and inspired musicality, drawing attention to the lasting value of Liszt’s oeuvre as the invention of the modern piano. Needless to say, there are differences too. Moreover, Trifonov’s generous “Transcendental” set for DG also gives us the 5 Concert Etudes and the Grandes Etudes de Paganini on a second disc.

Transcendental etudes

Gerstein performs Liszt

Kirill Gerstein is an intelligent, inquisitive musician. (He recently also set the record straight regarding the score of Tchaikovsky’s famous First Piano Concerto.) Gerstein clearly sees the Etudes as a coherent cycle to be played as a complete set, starting with the virtuosic try-out of the keyboard in the Preludio and culminating in the truly transcendental, modernist sonorities created in Chasse-Neige. Gerstein’s structural grip is obvious when considering the pieces individually, especially the more elaborate ones like Mazeppa, Ricordanza (in a terrific rendering), Harmonies du soir and Chasse-Neige, but is even more impressive when the cycle is heard in its entirety. As he explains in the informative interview published in the booklet of this Myrios release, it helps coming to grips with the Etudes by thinking of them as a collection of pairs, not just tonally but also by character. This approach sheds new light on the cycle, creating extra dramatic contrast.

Transcendental

Transcendental by Daniil Trifonov

While Daniil Trifonov also performs the complete Etudes d’exécution transcendante in concert, in this recording I was less struck by the coherence of the cycle than in Gerstein’s hands. Arguably most listeners won’t be bothered by this, because Trifonov’s pianism is such a stunner (he is more controlled and above all more accurate in the studio than live, and is also slightly better served by the engineers than Gerstein). His remains a tremendously exciting journey, always articulate and brilliantly colorful, but by his seemingly impromptu approach the individual character of the pieces tends to dominate the bigger architecture. Trifonov can be very theatrical, allying telling silences with fierce attacks or dazzling fusées, but I missed some of the gravitas that Gerstein sensitively conveys in the more melancholic passages. However, where Trifonov remains unequalled is by the lightness and transparency of his textures, weaving these ultra-delicate but flexible tapestries of sound in notably Paysage and Feux follets, as well as in the lyrical Concert Etudes La Leggierezza and Il Sospiro, and the impressionistic Waldesrauschen and Gnomenreigen. He also makes a very strong case for the underrated Paganini Etudes, including a very refined rendition of La Campanella, a marvelously handled Arpeggio and an eloquent La Chasse.

In short, these are utterly rewarding releases, new frontrunners in this repertoire that deserve a place in every serious Liszt or piano collection.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman


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Halloween in London

Ludwig van Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, Op. 62
Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto #2 in A Major
Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14

Khatia Buniatishvili, piano
Philharmonia Orchestra/Tugan Sokhiev
London, Royal Festival Hall, 30 October 2014

Beethoven, Liszt and Berlioz formed an explosive Romantic trio in the hands of Tugan Sokhiev and the Philharmonia Orchestra in this London concert. The opening moments of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture made it clear that this wasn’t going to be an evening for relaxation. The Roman general’s dilemma was initially brushed with such muscular vigor and dark colors it made you wonder whether he was ever going to give in. It was quite a large-scaled formation for Beethoven, too, but Sokhiev has been a regular guest with the Philharmonia Orchestra and easily carved a convincing balance and lightness of texture, preventing our hero from tipping from grand into heavy.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Lutosławski, Liszt and Tchaikovsky in Paris

Witold Lutosławski: Concerto for Orchestra
Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto #2 in A Major, S. 125
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Suite #3 in G Major, Op. 55

Khatia Buniatishvili, piano
Orchestre de Paris/Andrey Boreyko
Paris, Salle Pleyel, 12 June 2013

Paris celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Polish composer and conductor Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) with a series of concerts, performed by local and invited ensembles throughout the year. The Orchestre de Paris has worked on different occasions with the composer and revives a couple of his works. The Concerto for Orchestra, dating from 1950-54, remains one of his most popular works. For the occasion, at the Paris Salle Pleyel, it was somewhat awkwardly squeezed into a program which also featured Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto, with Khatia Buniatishvili as soloist, and Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard Third Suite.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Hungarian Magic

Antonino Pasculli: Concerto on Themes from Donizetti’s “La Favorita”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Concerto for Oboe & Orchestra in C Major, K. 314
Franz Liszt: A Faust-Symphony

François Leleux, oboe
Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 6 March 2013

The Budapest Festival Orchestra is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Under the guidance of maestro Iván Fischer (co-founder with Zoltán Kocsis), the orchestra not only established itself as one of Hungary’s foremost cultural entities, it also went on to cut a strong profile on the international stage. The program they offered in Brussels was delightfully unusual and of the highest level throughout. Starting with a small oboe festival with pieces from the little-known Pasculli and Mozart, featuring the high-spirited François Leleux as soloist, it was the rarely heard Faust-Symphony from Franz Liszt which acted as the focal point of the evening.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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She came, she played, and she conquered

Franz Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor
Frédéric Chopin: Ballade #4, Piano Sonata #2
Serge Prokofieff: Piano Sonata #7

Khatia Buniatishvili, piano
Paris, Salle Pleyel, 19 November 2012

Since I first attended a solo recital by Khatia Buniatishvili in the smallish auditorium of the Cité de la Musique in Paris, hardly ten months ago, things have been going fast for the 25-year old Georgian pianist. Meanwhile she released her second solo CD (Sony 97129), media attention has soared, she was awarded the German “Echo Klassik” prize for most promising artist, and above all she has been touring extensively throughout Europe, and also recently San Francisco and Japan – either as soloist, with orchestras or as member of chamber music formations joining distinguished colleagues like Gidon Kremer, Truls Mørk and Renaud Capuçon. Buniatishvili had played Pleyel before in a concert with the Orchestre de Paris. But until now the big hurdle of a solo recital in the most prestigious concert venue in the French capital – which is currently her hometown – still needed to be taken. On 19 November it was taken, and how.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Buniatishvili in Paris

Franz Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor, Mephisto Waltz #1
Frédéric Chopin: Scherzi #1, 2 & 3
Igor Stravinsky: Three Movements from Petrushka

Khatia Buniatishvili, piano
Paris, Cité de la Musique, 5 January 2012

While most pianists would conclude their recital with the Sonata from Franz Liszt, Khatia Buniatishvili, at the Cité de la Musique in Paris, choose to open with it. She is a fearless performer. Focused and intense – this mysterious sotto voce opening seems even more daunting when it has to form the first sound to resonate in the hall – she is sure to grab your attention from the very first bars and never really let go. You may first notice the speed, the vehemence, the electrifying energy, the occasional risk-taking, too, but pretty soon she also wins you over with her thorough control of sound and color (in spite of a none too flattering instrument provided by the Cité de la Musique), her unerring ability to really nail the key notes during the hardest passages, her dramatic presentation and the utterly romantic sweep that kicks Liszt back to life. In any case, Khatia Buniatishvili doesn’t take any prisoners, but I guess most in the audience would have been willing to give their lives. She possesses the freedom to shape this music at will, yet the good news is she has a clear idea of how to use that freedom and while she may occasionally throw in a few flashes to reinforce the message, musicality prevails over empty rhetoric and circus display.
Read the full review on Classical Net