LISZT: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2; Totentanz; Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Tunes – Nareh Arghamanyan, p./ Radio Sym. Orch. Berlin/ Alain Altinoglu – Pentatone

by | Dec 13, 2012 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

LISZT: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat; Piano Concerto No. 2 in A; Totentanz; Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Tunes – Nareh Arghamanyan, piano/ Radio Sym. Orch. Berlin/ Alain Altinoglu – Pentatone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 397, 72:24 (10/30/12) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Though Liszt’s two Piano Concertos were both started early—No. 1 getting the wet ink as early as 1830—each followed in succession in the public eye with performances in 1855 and 1857 respectively. We might think it odd that a man like Liszt, so intensely piano-obsessed and a virtuoso of the highest degree would not want to make his concerto a simple display piece like the other virtuosi of the time, but this is exactly what happened. In fact, even according to such an authority as Bartok, Liszt created the “first perfect realization of a cyclical sonata form, in which common themes are dealt with based on the variation principle.” The Second Concerto is more of a rhapsody, beautifully constructed and perfectly gauged to a pianist willing to allow flights of fancy in the midst of a formal scheme that is actually quite severe.
23-year-old Armenian pianist Nareh Arghamanyan, who has been playing since the age of five, has recently signed a contract with Pentatone, and has been making an impressive round of performances with noted orchestras all over the world. She shows amazing maturity and restraint in these two warhorses, though her forte is not like those of Argerich or Richter, whose approach takes on Liszt at sword’s end and doesn’t let up until blood has been spilled.  Arghamanyan instead takes a lyrical and more sedate style into her soul with readings that are just loaded with flexible and soaring flight-of-fancy finger work that focuses on Liszt’s inimitable sense of rhapsodic invention. These are not hell-bent-for-leather performances but instead those that seek a chamber music intimacy within the confines of a large orchestra whole—and it works.
One could argue that a piece like Totentanz, maybe the composer’s most devilish orchestral score, would not respond to the melodic musings of a light touch, but you would be wrong. This work, a series of variations on the Gregorian Dies irae, achieves its percussive effects on its own with little help needed from the pianist, and holds her own in a splendid reading. The Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Tunes, that originally featured conductor Hans von Bulow as the pianist at the premiere, is one of two arrangements Liszt made of his Hungarian Rhapsody No. 14. I t is an enthusiastic and fun piece of work taken for what it is—and audience-pleaser and rousing work of great invention. Again, Arghamanyan is at the top of her game, as is the splendid Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and their young conductor. Pentatone provides wondrous surround sound, maybe just a little lacking in treble but easily adjustable.
—Steven Ritter

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