Top Ear

Comprehensive Review: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 on piano

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Jeremy Lee writes

After Top Ear’s previous two comprehensives, both on Brahms (the 4th symphony and Ein Deutsches Requiem respectively), we’ve decided we should do our third one on a smaller single work.  Therefore, I present you with a comprehensive review on what is arguably the most overplayed Liszt piece ever written:  the Second Hungarian Rhapsody.

A caveat:  I’ve decided to eschew all the orchestral transcriptions of the work and instead concentrate my review on the piano versions instead, for the simple reason that I feel the orchestral version fails to capture the innately pianistic writing and color of the original.  Suffice it to say that the sheer amount of renditions of the piano original out there is enough for me to cover quite a few thousand words.  Enough rambling:  let’s get started.

The recordings

Don’t be fooled by the album cover:  Liszt never recorded anything on a piano roll.  Instead, what we have here is the great Liszt protégé Arthur Friedheim’s piano roll recording, surely a useful, if possibly not entirely authentic, key to the style of this romantic virtuoso of the golden age.  The whole impression is one of extreme aristocracy and good taste, and while Friedheim’s technique is everywhere to be heard in the Friska (note the precision of those repeated broken-octave figurations), the Lassan moves on suavely and tastefully, without a hint of sentimental saccharine-ness that would become many later versions’ affectation.  Nor is the Friska harsh or flashy in any way, the latter of which is quite the opposite, I would say, of the purported pianism of Liszt himself.  No cadenzas, sadly.  This being a piano roll, the digital stereo sonics are fine though extremely reverberant.

Josef Hofmann’s version was recorded in 1922 and has appeared in his Great Pianists of the 20th Century album.  Primitive recording quality aside, it’s a very beautifully shaped rendition, with a flowing Lassan and a suitably exciting Friska.  Of course, Hofmann was most famed for his technique, and his runs are simply spectacular in their evenness, clarity, velocity and shape.  But otherwise it’s a controlled and thoughtful interpretation that, while slightly neutral and lacking that extra ounce of capriciousness, deserves a listen.

One doesn’t look much further than György Cziffra for thrills, and here he delivers them aplenty.  The Lassan is extremely fantastic (as in fantasy-like) and imaginative, and the rhapsodic quality of his playing strikes me as if everything was just improvised on the spot.  And in the Friska he goes all out:  his banged-out bass notes and reinforced octaves, supremely clear runs unaided by the pedal, and fascinatingly even repeated notes showcase this master’s gift for offering madly dazzling pianistic fireworks through a splendid technique.  His stop-start tempi meanwhile won’t be for everyone, but it adds plenty of sparkle and fantasy to an already volatile reading, a reading no Liszt fan would want to miss.  (For a taste of an even madder Cziffra I direct you to his HR6 on the same disc.)  The sonics on this new Masters release is fine and noticeably warmer than previous remasterings, though I would concur that the sonics on the previous Great Recordings of the Century release, edgier and colder no doubt it was, better captures Cziffra’s metallic, explosive tone.

If there was a pianist who could equal or surpass Cziffra’s showmanship, who other would that be besides Vladimir Horowitz!  The Lassan’s opening sets the tone:  humongous bass notes, runs that fly up and down the keyboard as rapidly and effortlessly like glissandi–it’s not going to be a mean performance, this one.  Then we get to the Friska, and if after hearing this your jaws are still in place, you might as well be deaf (or simply have ridiculously strong tonsils).  In simple terms, Horowitz captures the music’s fascination and dance-like mood like no other, and he goes insane in the very end, leading the audience to respond immediately with wild cheer.  Of course, Horowitz uses his own version, with added–well, everything, including completely new passages–and all for the good:  it’s simply thrilling.  Compulsory hearing, this one.

Speaking of Horowitz’s transcription of the piece, I give you Arcadi Volodos’ recording on Sony, a pianist whose pianism has been favorably compared to that of the older master.  Frankly, nobody can pull off this piece better than Horowitz himself can, a fact a back-to-back comparison of the two versions can show:  Volodos’ playing lacks that kind of special charm and risk Horowitz gave, and sounds much more serious–this in a work that doesn’t exactly scream for such a quality (to paraphrase David Hurwitz)–but taken at face value this version is superb.  Not only does it sound technically safer than Horowitz, it also sounds better and is voiced more intricately.  So if you want to hear Horowitz’s transcription without the mannerisms of Horowitz, this is THE version to go.  But what if you want something even more exaggerated than Horowitz’s own?  Just wait and see…

Marc-André Hamelin’s huge sonority, huge musicality, huge knowledge of the piano repertoire and most of all a ginormous technique needs no more elaboration from me, but just hear for yourself what magic he makes in this most overplayed of Liszt’s HRs.  The Lassan manages to sound inspired and capricious despite Hamelin’s relatively strict tempo (none of Cziffra’s rubato), and you won’t hear a more technically satisfying Friska out there, with all sorts of technical challenges simply conquered, just like that, with no effort whatsoever.  Meanwhile Hamelin’s ability to do the quickest octaves and chords while keeping the dynamic level soft is just astonishing, and he manages a huge bucket of humor too without resorting to tasteless caricatures.  But there’s no reason why you should hear this version had it not been for Hamelin’s own cadenza, and here Hamelin the composer is astonishing in his hilarious way of treating the musical motives stated in the main material, such as joining them together by innovative polyphonic writing and musical quotations coming from, I suspect, Alkan’s Op. 76 No. 3.  Hamelin the pianist, meanwhile, flies through all the technical challenges he throws at himself, including all those black-key glissandos and one octave one sweeping upwards for a few octaves, with all that sangfroid you would expect, in a manner only Hamelin himself could manage.  One of my favorites, and a must-hear.

This isn’t a must-hear though:  far from it.  Recorded as the very last installment of Leslie Howard’s complete Liszt traversal for Hyperion, it can be heard quite clearly that both Howard and Hyperion’s engineers finish this massive project with a weak will and complete exhaustion.  Hamelin’s Hyperion colleague delivers an uninspired Lassan and a sparkling Friska that is ultimately not special, and all the proceedings are captured in close, suffocating sound completely devoid of sparkle.  Skip.

Sergei Rachmaninov recorded his version of the piece in 1919 for Edison Records, and it’s a good one:  a songful, suitably rhapsodic Lassan precedes a swift Friska in which the extremely even leaps, uniform touch and sense of fun testifies to Rachmaninov the technician and good-humored musician, in all his splendor.  Not as volatile or exciting as the aforementioned Horowitz, perhaps, but still very impressive.  So far as I can tell there are only two problems with it:  firstly, Rachmaninov hits quite a large number of wrong notes (contrary to his reputation of infallible accuracy), and secondly, I find Rachmaninov’s cadenza to be out of place stylistically (as opposed to Hamelin’s complete seamlessness, no matter in transition or in style).  Nevertheless this is superb pianism.

Recorded in 1974 for Philips, Michele Campanella’s traversal of the Liszt Rhapsodies was one of the first complete ones.  His Second is a fine effort:  while the Lassan is quite forgettable, the Friska is vivacious and subdued, and Campanella is never tempted to bang during the louder bits, though he sports a surprisingly wide dynamic range.  His inflections in the basic tempi only add to the music’s exhilaration.  It’s also an exceptionally clear reading:  he reveals quite a lot of minor details, such as voices and ornaments, that you wouldn’t hear otherwise (though this may be due to the slow tempi and the clarity of the recording).  That said, it lacks surprise and spontaneity, as if everything was studied and chiseled to perfection beforehand, but if perfection is what you want, you can’t do much better.

Contemporaneous to Campanella’s complete reading is that by Robert Szidon on DG Duo, and the first few notes of the Second immediately show how much more inspired Szidon sounds compared to Campanella:  he observes the staccato-marked chords after the first C-sharp completely literally, and instead of pedalling them away, he lets the C-sharp act as the pedal, allowing it resonate to its next note.  The result is an added element of unpredictability that you won’t hear anywhere else.  The runs in the rest of the Lassan, meanwhile, are wrenched out and makes for some thrilling effect.  The Friska is less special, but it’s still loud and proud, with a stronger hint of festiveness than most.  A short and flashy cadenza rounds off the piece.  DG’s sonics are less warm than those Philips gave to Campanella, but it’s to the benefit of the clarity of the repeated notes in the high registers.

John Ogdon wasn’t terribly renowned as a Liszt player, but both of us at Top Ear agree that his Feux Follets (on the same album as his Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2) is exciting as hell, and his HR2 is no exception.  I will say once and for all that there is simply NO version that is more thrilling than this, and really, there’s no point pointing out all the details that makes it so thrilling because it’s everywhere.  (Suffice it to say that the fact Ogdon can keep those repeated notes so clear at such a high speed is enough to keep your jaws dropped throughout the Friska.)  Ogdon’s own cadenza is also well-written and dazzling in its audacious bravura.  Recorded live in Japan in 1972, errors are fairly common, but that’s what you get when you fly through the thing like a stabbed rat, and I bet the audience must have gone completely bonkers after that, though the lack of applause renders this notion unprovable.  At least I suspect you would go bonkers.

Back to Earth, Alfred Brendel’s recording for Cardinal was then reissued on Vanguard, and now as part of a gigantic Brilliant Classics box set comprising all of Brendel’s pre-Philips recordings.  Immediately what you can hear is Brendel’s wide palate of colors, as he gives us the darkest and most brooding Lassan there is, followed by a spectacular Friska which never goes over the top like Ogdon or below sub-zero like Campanella–by treading the middle-line, Brendel gives us one of the freshest and most deeply convincing Friskas conceived.  A cute cadenza, mostly in the high-registers, follows.  Yes, the “cerebral” pianist is cerebral in his playing here, but certainly not at the expense of fun.  Superb, pearly sonics.

I guess there cannot be a further removed pianist from the “studied”, “scholarly” style of Brendel than Tzimon Barto.  You don’t have to listen much to decide for yourself whether you appreciate Barto’s added octaves in the very first few bars, or his dense additions to the bass register, or his endlessly long-winded rambling to get to the Lassan proper from the introduction.  His sanity in the Friska may strike listeners accustomed to the general, uh, distinctiveness (perversity?) of Barto’s playing as disappointing, and his repeated notes are obviously not very well-done, nor is his cadenza which just sounds uninspired.  But then as you expect the very last three chords to appear, Barto adds his own potpourri.  There we have it:  a so-so Friska sandwiched between two weirdly fascinating sections.  That’s Barto to you!  The sound is fine but very hard-edged, typical of EMI’s early digital piano sound.

Simon Trpceski was a pretty popular pianist when he came to Hong Kong and played two Rachmaninov concerti with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, and due to demand he will come again next year.  To see what he’s like, we come to his performance of the HR2, live from Wigmore Hall.  It’s easy to see why the Hong Kong audience loved him:  he’s a serious musician with seriously good technique and very neat, direct musicality.  He delivers an almost note-perfect Hungarian Rhapsody, but the problem is that is just too safe and nothing he does is special or different in any way that holds interest.  It’s even safer than Campanella, which is strange given that you’d expect some shred of risk-taking in concert.  Trpceski doesn’t deliver that.

Valentina Lisitsa, the pianist that rose to fame uniquely by Youtube, plays in the above video an interesting if not completely convincing performance.  You have to admire her agility in the staccatos and her transparent, almost weightless tone, but it’s precisely this kind of weightlessness that make the ending and some bits of the Friska a bit lacking in power where it needs.  Also, she flicks off the runs with such velocity and a devil-may-care attitude in 8:07, and as a result she eschews a few notes, which sounds quite strange.  On the other hand I have no quibbles about the poetic treatment Lisitsa gives to the Lassan, however, and the bit at 7:25 is by far the most chattery and bubbly I’ve heard.  The enthusiastic applause at the end is well-deserved.

And at last, we have Lang Lang in the Royal Albert Hall performing as part of the BBC Proms, and he plays Horowitz’s transcription.  (Lang, in an interview, said that the reason he came to play the piano was because of Tom and Jerry’s version.)  As you would expect, it’s hair-raising, bombastic and extrovert, which is all the better for the piece, given that Liszt, in his showy virtuoso splendor, would probably have played it in such a way.  And, yes, it’s a good deal more violent and flashy than Horowitz’s own playing.  I’d agree that some of his exaggerations are a bit beyond good taste, but there’s no denying that Lang captures the bravura and gusto of the piece as only he could.

Conclusions

A simple 10-minute piece, a huge variety of interpretations out there.  On one end of the scale, Cziffra and Ogdon; on the other, Campanella and Trpceski.  Fortunately, and fascinatingly for me, most of these interpretations are musically valid, and they all shine a special angle of light on this most hackneyed of all Hungarian Rhapsodies, which allows me to gain a much fuller picture of the piece as a whole.  Personally, I wouldn’t want to live without Ogdon’s hell-ride, Brendel’s freshness, or Hamelin’s astounding cadenza, but of course your mileage may vary.  Those I have yet to hear include Jando, Paderewski and Berman, as well as all the amateur performances on Youtube.  But great music is inexhaustible, isn’t it.

Thank you, Mr. Liszt.

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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

2 thoughts on “Comprehensive Review: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 on piano

  1. Pingback: Top Ear’s 2nd Anniversary! | Top Ear

  2. Thank you very much for the interesting reviews of “The Second”. I also collect different renditions of it and so far I consider the Władysław Kędra’s The Second to be the best, of course to my ears. The cadenza is simply superb, performed entirely in Liszt’s own style, making the piece somewhat more complete and brilliant. Never heard anything better!

    PS: I did not see a review of Misha Dichter’s integral on the 19 Rhapsodies, which is also worth mentioning [1987, Philips Classics ‎– 416 463-2]

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