Liszt, Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, "Totentanz," performed by Nelson Freire and the Dresden Philharmonic, Michel Plasson conducting (Berlin Classics 0011302BC); Liszt, "Totentanz," excerpts from Book I of the "Annees de Pelinerage," Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 17 and 18, and the Polonaise in C Minor, performed by Grigori Ginzburg and (in the "Totentanz") the All Union Radio Symphony Orchestra, Nikolai Anosov conducting (Arlecchino 141)
Arthur Rubinstein remarked that "People think a pianist needs technique to play Liszt and musicianship to play Brahms when actually it's quite the reverse."
Technique is a given in Liszt -- the music simply won't sound brilliant without it. But there is more to Liszt than flamboyance and pedal-to-the-metal pounding. The music of Ravel, Schonberg, Debussy and Bartok is impossible to imagine without it.
Liszt occupies many rooms in the house of music: In the concertos and early Hungarian Rhapsodies he can be a showman; in pieces such as the "Vallee d'Obermann" he is a voice of prophecy; in "Au bord d'une source," he is an impressionist. And much of the time, Liszt is all these things. Genuinely persuasive Liszt performances are rarer than those of Brahms, Beethoven and even Mozart. No composer demands more of a pianist than Liszt.
These two CDs, both long awaited by piano aficionados, contain great Liszt playing. Freire's recording represents the pianist's return to the studio in solo works after an absence of more than 20 years. Freire has the sense of structure and consistency of style that are the mark of a fine pianist. What makes him great are his limpid tone, a technique that enables him to play at speeds at which other pianists would risk sacrificing clarity, rhythm and the right notes -- and the imagination to put these together.
His readings of the Liszt concertos are among the most poetic, challenged only by the 1962 version of Sviatoslav Richter with conductor Kyril Kondrashin and the London Symphony (Philips) and the 1988 version of Krystian Zimerman with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony (DG). While Richter's performances remain the benchmark for drama, Freire actually plays them with greater fluidity and equal insight. Freire does not get the extraordinary accompaniment Richter receives from Kondrashin -- who does? -- but it is good enough. In his craftsmanship and measured virtuosity, Freire resembles Zimerman, but the Brazilian's warmer playing gives him an edge. It's hard to imagine the macabre "Totentanz," which was inspired by Holbein's series of woodcuts on the theme of the "Dance of Death," played better.
Until one one hears Ginzburg's 1948 recording, that is.
Ginzburg (1904-1961) is almost unknown to Western audiences. Except for a few appearances in Europe in the 1930s, he never left Russia. But some of his recordings on the Soviet Melodiya label made their way into the hands of Western piano buffs and made Ginzburg a cult figure.
The most difficult works were so easy for Ginzburg that he was able to refine their poetic kernels while his colleagues struggled with the dross. This disc makes his legendary account of the "Totentanz" available in the West for the first time. Ginzburg makes the grim, relentless tread of chords, deep within the bass register, that open the "Totentanz" truly fiendish. Yet he makes other passages as affecting as a Bach chorale. And there are several passages that sound so new that one detects as much Ginzburg as Liszt. Like the latter, the Russian was a remarkable transcriber -- and one suspects that no one would have enjoyed Ginzburg's "improvements" more than Liszt himself.
The pianist's performances of five pieces from Book I of the "Years of Pilgrimage" are superb. His ability to sustain the ebb and flow of "Au bord d'une source" matches that of Horowitz and Lipatti. His account of the Byronic "Vallee d'Obermann" creates the dizzying heights and depths so beloved of Romantic art. He performs the late Hungarian Rhapsodies -- dark and enigmatic dance fantasies with daring harmonies that anticipate late Scriabin -- fearlessly. Ginzburg's piquant elegance in the Polonaise in C Minor makes it sound like much more than a faint echo of Chopin.