Thomas Otten is a scholar-pianist, a pupil of Martin Katz who wields a palette of power and color. Liszt transcriptions provide opportunities for digital prowess and the grand singing line, since Liszt himself chose popular tunes from operas and from selected German lieder. Otten plays (31 May 2005) the Yamaha DCFIIIAPRO whose mid- and upper range have a sensuous, rich tone. The thick tremolandos in Schumann’s Spring Night find birdcall responses in the right hand, then rolling chords and cascades of sound. The piano has to approximate the thick orchestral textures in Tristan, closing with the crossing of hands as the lovers unite in death. Some pedagogues prefer the Moszkowski treatment over Wagner’s. Senta’s Ballad, however, nicely balances orchestral and vocal tissue; Otten maintains a transparent, clarion texture throughout.
Rigoletto is part transcription, part Reminiscence, opening with the last-act quartet, then applying a rhapsodic treatment which stratifies and syncopates these same motifs. Liszt’s own Petrarch Sonnet 104 from his Italian Year of Pilgrimage is an arrangement of his own song for tenor and piano, which complains of the oxymoronic transports of love. Otten gives the piece a rhetorical spaciousness, rife with fermatas and pregnant pedal points. Of all the cuts on this disc, the Petrarch could compete with the likes of Arrau and Bolet in Liszt interpretation. The “little bell” of Paganini, with its clever and delicate use of repeated notes, finds as much charm as bravura with Otten. The Nojima performance on Reference Recordings remains unrivaled for poetry and thunder.
My usual bias applies to this disc: anything under 50-plus minutes does not win my heart; and why Mr. Otten’s disc could not have included Liszt’s treatment of Robert the Devil or his own, great Don Juan Fantasy puzzles and galls me.