Leonard Ip writes
Liszt’s piano concertos are well-served on CD. Richter’s studio recordings with Kondrashin are justly legendary, complemented by excellent modern versions such as Zimerman/Ozawa and the more recent Nebolsin/Petrenko. Berman recorded these performances with Giulini and the Vienna Symphony in 1976 and they were released on DG’s Galleria series. DG included them in the Entrée series in 2003, making them available at mid-price. I will set it straight from the start: I am very glad they did so.
A balance between virtuosity and musicality may well be the most cliched debate in virtuoso repertoire, but I will give it a go anyway. Berman’s colossal technique and virtuosic flair is never in doubt: his runs, trills and filigree glitter and scintillate like a spring, and the big chords and octaves are exemplary in their heroic sweep and iron firmness. True, his tempi tend to be on the slow side, but the piano-orchestra coordination clearly is well attuned to the interpretation and the music is intelligently paced, highlighting moments of sparkle rather than downplaying them (the coda of both concertos, for instance) – an undeniable evidence showing Berman being much more than a firebrand virtuoso.
Berman’s infallible octaves at the opening of the First Concerto is every bit as thundering as Richter, and the cadenza is a perfect blend of forcefulness and flashiness. Slow, meditative episodes feature little rhetorical inflection, but are always elegantly phrased. Berman’s control of the octave sonority in lyrical sentences is remarkable for its precision and meshes well with the poetic air. Unlike many, Berman does not rush to build up the climax before the scherzo, but adrenaline certainly rushes as the octaves shoot out. Notwithstanding the moderate tempo, Berman manages to sound lean and athletic in the scherzo (just as it should be) by the sheer crispness of his touch. The statement of the motif over bass trills strikes me as particularly musical: rather than the usual bombastic treatment, Berman keeps it quietly ominous – much in accord with the building line of the paragraph. Berman may not match Zimerman’s miraculously quicksilver figurations in the finale, but is still sharply etched.
The more philosophical Second Concerto shows Berman at his most musically sensitive. Even more so than in the First Concerto, his slower, more measured tempi and exquisite sonority allow reposeful passages to shine through, and underscore the Lisztian chromatic angst that is too often overlooked (e.g. section J, appassionato). Of course, Berman’s technical prowess remains everywhere to be admired: the contra-motion split octaves at the coda is as rock-solid as they can be, and the slight ritardando he takes to start the big glissandos adds to the panache of his playing. As in the First Concerto, Berman never rushes randomly for the sake of excitement. Instead, his excitement is generated from his tight grip of sentences and paragraphs as much as from his huge mechanism, the former a merit that makes his Années de pèlerinage an evergreen recording.
The Vienna Symphony sounds florid and virile under Giulini (not dissimilar with his accompaniment for Michelangeli’s Beethoven concertos) and while they certainly don’t outclass the Philharmonic they never lack refinement and power. Instrumental solos (clarinet, violin, cello) in both concertos are prominent and well-played. The orchestra’s merits are especially important to Liszt’s concertos, in which the orchestra often takes the lead.
Many still cite Richter as the benchmark of this repertoire, and certainly there is no better realization of Liszt’s lightning virtuosity and grand gestures than the Russian master’s wild playing to this day. Kondrashin and the LSO are still the most magnificent partners the Liszt concertos have ever seen. Cziffra’s unique Lisztian instinct also makes his account in a class of their own – excusing a rather sloppy Orchestre de Paris under his son Cziffra Jr.. Evidently, Berman yields nothing to these masters, and his clear-minded approach is decidedly different from the great personalities and charisma of his forerunners. While Richter remains unsurpassable, though, I would not want to be without Berman’s technically impeccable and musically sensible, solid recordings.
Fillers on the rest of the disc are two orchestral pieces: Les Preludes and the Second Hungarian Rhapsody played by the Vienna Philharmonic with Sinopoli. I never cared much for Liszt’s tone poems despite having heard a few recordings of Les Preludes, and, like many (I surmise) am not entirely comfortable hearing the Hungarian Rhapsody not played on the piano. To be fair, Sinopoli delivers both pieces splendidly, with a luxurious orchestal palette akin to his treatment of Strauss’s tone poems, and those who warm to the music will find much to enjoy in these recordings. But why didn’t DG retain the infinitely more enticing coupling on the Galleria series (Berman’s Venezia e Napoli)?
Liszt: Piano Concertos, *Les Preludes
Lazar Berman; Carlo Maria Giulini: Vienna Symphony Orchestra / *Giuseppe Sinopoli: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Stereo DDD 77:10 min