LISZT: Ellens Gesang III; Ballade No. 2 in B Minor; VERDI (arr. Liszt): Aida: Danza sacra e duetto finale; Rondeau fantastique sur un theme espagnol; Gute Nacht; Des Maedchens Klage; Erlkoenig; Der Mueller und der Bach; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in C-sharp Minor – Valentina Lisitsa, p. – Decca BOO18987-02, 76:00 [Distr. by Universal] (10/8/13) ****:
Current keyboard superstar Valentina Lisitsa recorded this all-Liszt recital on a Boesendorfer instrument at the Beethovensaal in Hanover on 5-6 December 2011. The mix proves rather compelling: five Schubert transcriptions, one Verdi paraphrase, a brilliant transcription from a Manuel Garcia zarzuela, and two potent original works, the Second Ballade and the Twelfth Hungarian Rhapsody.
Lisitsa first exploits her capacity for legato figuration in Liszt’s arrangement of Ave Maria, which sets a tone of delicate intimacy, rare enough in the annals of Liszt’s oeuvre. More typical, the B Minor Ballade of 1853, inspired by Lenore of Gottfried Buerger, appears to extend the dark affects of the B Minor Sonata, rife with darkly chromatic lines and shifting harmonies, then moving into a more sunlit Allegretto section. The piece delivers an assortment of effects: broken octaves, rocket-like scales, “religious” cadences, a dramatic cadenza, and moments of ecstatic quietude. Lisitsa emphasizes the subtle shift in the exposition to B-flat Minor that will transform the progression into a march. No wonder the epic piece appealed to that other Herculean Liszt acolyte, Vladimir Horowitz.
The Aida paraphrase (1878) basks in exotic harmonies and throbbing arpeggios, redolent with the themes of love and death. Liszt splices the sacred dance from the end of Act I and the final love duet that ends Act IV. Lisitsa’s right hand executes a long unbroken line that moves from trill to arioso evocation of a liebesnacht. The left hand tremolos are a mere shadow of what Liszt demands in his zarzuela transcription. The duet sequence projects an anguished delicacy of often glittering effect – interrupted by thundering chords of fate – especially given the “tomb scene” context of the lovers’ last embraces.
The rarest of the selections, Rondeau fantastique sur un theme espagnol “El contrabandista,” derives from Liszt’s 1844 tour of Spain and Portugal. The Garcia piece is set for soprano, guitar, and castanets. Liszt published the piece with an opus number, Op. 5, No. 2, perhaps his last publication to enjoy the catalogue distinction. The piece resounds with every difficult toccata technique Liszt can bring to bear, eliciting the epithets “Impossible!” and “unplayable!” from both the composer and a recent executor, Mikhail Pletnev. Set deciso, the piece scampers, splashes, and plummets headlong into repeated notes, trills, tremolandi, and wide leaps that exceed his harmonic stretches in La Campenella. If one piece warrants the price of admission, you’ve got it here.
The ensuing Schubert group then delves into dark regions, without any loss of dramatic flair. Gute nacht from Schubert’s ‘Winter’s Journey” cycle drips with portent, somewhat relived by moments of aggrieved reminiscence. The transcription of Der Maedchens Klage conveys a tragic, lyrical power – attend to Lisitsa’s prowess in the bass line – of any of his Liebestraume.
The emotional as well as digital abysses of Der Erlkoenig hardly need review: Lisitsa takes it a rapid tempo, capturing the fury of the storms natural and psychical. The challenge always remains to make the legato seduction of the Erl-King as alluring as possible, until his stunning, “I’ll take you by force!” to the dying child. A quiet stasis ensues in “The Miller and the Brook,” a kind of enchanted occasionally scintillating nocturne illuminated by Lisitsa’s affecting parlando.
Lastly, the ubiquitous Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, with its eight motifs of tragic and whimsical affects, wrapped by rhetorical fervor. Lisitsa certainly produces cimbalom and music-box effects in the course of the music’s luxurious development, alternately declamatory and soaring in its evocations. Whether Lisitsa’s explosive rendition supplants the great whirlwinds we have had from Bachauer, Bolet, and Levitzky I leave to others’ tastes.