LISZT: Scherzo and March, S. 177; Mephisto Waltz No. 1, S. 541; Harmonies poetiques et religieuses, S. 173: Ave Maria; Pensees des morts; Funerailles; Andante lagrimoso; Nuages gris, S. 199; Valse oubliee No. 2 in A, S. 215 – Sviatoslav Richter, piano – Praga Digitals SACD (Bi-channel) DSD 350 081, 79:28 (3/10/15) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Recorded at various Russian and European venues, 1957-1988, the legendary Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) – whose centennial we celebrate in the persistent spirit of awed affection – appears in a program arranged to the rubric “Mephistopheles Disguised as an Abbe,” in order to consolidate the sacred and profane impulses in the composer’s personality. This sense of synthesized contraries begins with the fiendish 9 May 1957 recording of Liszt’s Scherzo and March (1851), with the former’s pungent appoggiaturas in 3/8 time that so tested Liszt’s favorite Tausig that he could not play the piece successfully. Liszt’s counterpoint has rarely sounded so grotesquely pungent as the undaunted Richter realizes it, a true precursor of Mephisto. The succeeding, obsessive March proffers its own challenges, including a ghostly, syncopated entry that might be ascribed to Alkan or young Mahler.
The last pages may indicate divine madness from both composer and performer. Richter’s Mephisto Polka (1883) originates from Cologne, 10 March 1988. A work more compelled by exotic harmonic journeys than by any devilish program, it exacts odd metric groups and angular dance figures in the course of its forward-looking irony and light-handed filigree.
The sheer number of famed virtuosos who have inscribed the Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (1859) include titans Horowitz and Cziffra, Bolet, and Richter’s Moscow inscription ranks among the best of the frenzied lot. The introspective sequences – Mephisto as amorous fiddler – project a haunted, spectral allure, subjective and rife with controlled tension. The last pages play as if transcribed from a keyboard hallucination or tornado. Few works of Liszt could provide such an immediate spiritual counter as his (third) 1862 setting of the Ave Maria (rec. 5 February 1958), subtitled Die Glocken von Rom, “the bells of Rome.” In E Major, the music allows Richter some of the most lulling harmonies he evokes. The piece means to provide a “tutorial” for the piano school of Libert and Stark, but its reverential transparency and intensity transcend any “functional” usage.
Richter plays three “mortality” selections from Poetic and Religious Harmonies: Pensees des morts; Funerailles; and Andante lagrimoso, of which “Funerailles” (the best known piece in the Lamartine cycle, 1845-1852) remains particularly significant. Following the failed Hungarian War of Independence (1848-1849) the Austrian Imperial government executed Count Lajos Batthyeany and sixteen other independence leaders, of whom many were Liszt’s friends. The piece celebrates heroism, both personal and mythic. The gallops of the left octaves still evoke thoughts of a connection to Chopin’s Heroic Polonaise. No less technical fury invests the striking tremolos of Pensees des morts from Richter’s granite hands, especially in the cascades of scalar passages that culminate in percussive, “Gregorian” tones and a consoling theme in G that “aspires to the infinite,” in Liszt’s words. The 1852 Andante lagrimoso, after Lamartine’s poem Une larme, reveals Richter’s step-wise delicacy in communicating (rec. 11 July 1982) a work of lugubrious consolation.
The 1881 Nuages gris takes Richter into the “experimental side of Liszt’s alchemy, here in an “impressionistic” work that exploits, among several wandering, “augmented” harmonies, aspects of the E-flat Minor triad. Richter imbues the G Minor piece with a dark, bleak sensibility that resonates with Kafka and Schiele. Richter concludes (5 February 1958) with the late (1883) Valse oubliee No. 2 in A-flat Major, a salon piece that skitters and then leaps in impish filigree that barely contains its potential for explosive bravura.