LISZT: Piano Sonata in B Minor; Mazeppa; Mephisto Waltz – Felix Ardanaz, piano – Orpheus

LISZT: Piano Sonata in B Minor; Mazeppa; Mephisto Waltz – Felix Ardanaz, piano – Orpheus OR 3906-1828, 50:30 (6/7/14) *****:

Among the last pupils of Alicia de Larrocha, Spanish virtuoso Felix Ardanaz (b. 1989) addresses the titanic solo pieces of Franz Liszt (rec. 16-17 September 2010) with grand style.  Ardanaz manages to convey in the 1853 B Minor Sonata both the epic passions and tumultuous energies in the Faust tale, but no less the suavely sculptured tenderness – Quasi Adagio – that infiltrates the score with an eros that would appeal to such a kindred spirit as Scriabin. The sheer flexibility of the Ardanaz trill warrants a hearing, besides the manic thunder of the transitions and the insistence on the pedal Ds in the bass. The music’s eventual move to Liszt’s favorite “spiritual” (Andante sostenuto) key of F-sharp Major proves the “point” of the spiritual journey, as the music evolves from a ground motif that assumes the permutations Liszt learned from his absorption of scores from Beethoven and Schubert. His realization of the Grandioso version of the theme quite sweeps us away, as vocal as it is dramatic. The fugal section, Allegro energico, combines Bach counterpoint with Liszt’s ironic stretti, in lovely, articulately clear definition, culminating a towering Piu mosso expression of the main theme. The Prestissimo section simply staggers the ear. Ardanaz renews our own convictions that the Liszt Sonata embodies one of the wonders of Romantic repertory.

I first heard the Transcendental Etude No. 4 in D minor “Mazeppa” in a transferred historic performance of Moritz Rosenthal. The musical portrait of the Cossack hero lashed to a horse’s back for having had an affair with Countess Theresa, originally depicted in literature by Lord Byron, conveys staggering power in Liszt. The thundering of the horse’s hooves, staccatissimo, test the dexterity and endurance of the index and fourth fingers, which must compete with thirds and octaves in massive leaps. The mass of Ardanaz’s chromatic scales, interrupted by more liquid arpeggios, certainly rivals, for sheer magnitude of sonic propulsion, anything we know from prior performances by Cziffra and Bolet. The Allegro deciso section bursts with hectic, massive energy. The finale indulges Liszt’s innate sense of the grandiloquent as Mazeppa experiences an apotheosis, falling and then rising into glory.

The pungent fifths that open the Mephisto Waltz No. 1 prove mother’s milk to Ardanaz, who takes the succeeding hurdles of octaves and explosive leaps at a wildly single bound.  Mephisto seizes a fiddle from a lethargic practitioner at a village inn and invokes a sensual waltz for Faust and Gretchen. The lilting passion in digital dialogue that follows conveys the mounting tension and subsequent consummation of the lovers, whose embrace signifies the capture of Faust’s immortal soul. Ardanaz relishes every chord and trill that embellish the wild dance, sweet nightingale’s song, and feverish culmination of the Goethe epic by way of Nikolaus Lenau. Ardanaz takes the final pages to a thrilling climax, culminating in broken chords and waves of percussive octaves, the “voluptuous waves of love,” according to the poet. The keyboard sound of the Ardanaz Steinway D literally shimmers in “orchestral” effects, courtesy of recording engineer Juanan Ros. We don’t realize the performance has been “live” until the audience sails into ecstatic convulsions.

—Gary Lemco

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