LISZT: Apres une lecture de Dante – Fantasia quasi Sonata; 3 Petrarch Sonnets; Mephisto-Waltz; Totentanz – Carlo Grante, piano – Music & Arts

LISZT: Apres une lecture de Dante – Fantasia quasi Sonata; 3 Petrarch Sonnets; Mephisto-Waltz (trans. Busoni); Totentanz – solo version – Carlo Grante, piano – Music & Arts CD-1285, 66:45 (1/13/15) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Italian piano virtuoso Carlo Grante (b. 1960) points (from Vienna 2012) his inflamed Boesendorfer Imperial concert grand – courtesy of Paul and Eva Badura-Skoda – at the music of Franz Liszt, and the results can be staggering.  Carlo Grante has compiled a detailed essay to trace Liszt’s extensive reading and literary associations, given Liszt’s personal desire in 1856 to eschew public performance to concentrate on composition, especially sensitive to impulses inspired in other media, art and literary expression. The case in point, the grandiose Dante Sonata, absorbed Liszt’s attention from 1839-1856.  No less an influence upon Liszt’s concept – besides Dante’s own Divine Comedy – Victor Hugo’s “Apres une lecture de Dante” from the collection of Les Voix interieures, “The Inner Voices,” resonated in Liszt’s consciousness while he proceeded with his Weimar compositional endeavors.

There have been many fine inscriptions of the Dante Sonata, and connoisseurs will name Cziffra, Berman, Leonskaja, and Bar-Illan as potent digital visionaries in this work.  Carlo Grante seems to consume the work whole, attending to its sectionalized evolution that does not speed for its own sake, but builds incredible tension between those “spiritualized” moments in F-sharp Major and its infernal impulses in D Minor. The guiding rhythmic kernel, an iambic thrust that we likewise find in the Twelfth Hungarian Rhapsody, provides the metric glue that underlies the personae that infiltrate and even dominate this colossally intense sonata. The boundless sweep and poetic energy of Grante’s insired reading make this disc essential for the Liszt aficionado.

Liszt chose Schubert as his musical model in addressing (1838-1839) the Petrarch sonnet sequence, a kind of unity-in-variety of linear sequences that parallel the poet’s verses without falling into predictable constraints.  The Petrarchan conceits, of fire and ice, of Manichean struggle within the same breast, ring in elevated, transparent textures for the Sonnet 47. The ubiquitous Sonnet 104 in E Major capitalizes on the process of polarity in registration, articulation, dynamics, and passing nuances and grace notes.  The gentle, upward arpeggios and harmonized arpeggios achieve a rarified bliss worthy of the Liszt greats Cziffra, Horowitz, and Bolet. The Sonnet 123 exploits a spirit of repose, a dream-vision of remembered rapture. Grante’s middle-voice harmonization, beautifully captured by Audio Engineer Gerhard Kanzian, pours liquid gold.

The last two selections proffer the demonic Liszt we know from Gyorgy Cziffra, Byron Janis, and Earl Wild. Inspired by the Faust of Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850), Liszt explores in the Mephisto Waltz its Byronic fascination with weltschmerz and tragic fate.  Ferruccio Busoni envied the orchestral treatment of the Dance at the Village Inn and transcribed a deliberately “symphonic” texture for his piano version. The plastic, relatively serene middle section becomes a theme-and-variations in D-flat Major, with hints at the fate motif from Beethoven. Busoni, moreover, exalts the epic dramatic onrushes of energy and shifting dynamics, as opposed to Liszt’s originally deft, whimsical approach to his own piano version. Grande’s right hand antics in gossamer runs prove mesmerizing.  The Totentanz (1849; rev. 1853, 1859) utilizes the Twelfth Century sequence from the Latin Mass, but Liszt also took his cue from Berlioz in his Fantastic Symphony. The famous woodcuts by Holbein and the Orcagna fresco on the subject of “The Triumph of Death” contribute To Liszt’s massive color spectacle, whether in the accompanied or solo rendition. The use of counterpoint, parlando, tremolo, recitative, and multi-layered stretti contribute to the overwhelming, bravura effect.

A delight or the ear and mind, this Liszt recital by Grante, and so among the first of the Best of the Year candidates for any piano lover’s collection.

—Gary Lemco

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