Zsolt Bognar: Franz & Franz = SCHUBERT: Drei Impromptus, D. 946; LISZT: Der Doppelganger; Aufenhalt; La Chasse; Staendchen von Shakespeare; Apres une Lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata – Zsolt Bognar, piano – Con Brio CBR21346, 57:39 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

A pupil of Roger Shields and Sergei Babayan, and an admirer of many legendary pianists from Sviatoslav Richter to Eileen Joyce, Cleveland-based Zsolt Bognar seems on the threshold of a distinguished international career. His debut album (rec. 3-5 December 2010) pairs two musical spirits of lyrical and dramatic power, whom Bognar characterizes as “the romanticized, Nineteenth Century ideal of the heroic individualist struggling against the world.”

Bognar’s Three Impromptus of Schubert (1828) come to him via a Sviatoslav Richter concert from Budapest, 1963.  Probing sadness and lyrical intensity mark the order of these works, which Johannes Brahms edited and published (anonymously) in the form known to us today. Bognar traverses the E-flat Minor No. 1, a scherzo and trio, with forthright impetuosity and an urge to nobility of line. The movement both to the middle section in B Major and the resolution in E-flat Major makes the whole piece emotionally ambiguous, although rife with nervous power. The No. 2 in E-flat Major opens in the form of a gentle lied or lullaby whose middle section becomes more adventurous and dramatically fervent. Bognar admits that Alfred Brendel provided a model for his own Schubert concept, and auditors will likely find favorable comparisons in their respective readings. A rondo, this highly lyrical and chromatically meandering piece offers its own anxious episodes, marked by an ostinato bass line. The relatively spirited dance of No. 3 in C Major exploits the kinds of syncopations Dvorak would color for his Slavonic Dances. The mood changes dramatically in the middle section, a D-flat Major of meditative power from Bognar that concentrates on riffs that alter in half steps and shaded dynamics.

Bognar then gravitates to Franz Liszt transcriptions, a group of four pieces that honor Schubert’s treatment of poets Heine, Rellstab, and Shakespeare, augmented by one transcription of a Paganini caprice. The “Phantom-Double” of Heine (in Schubert’s Swan-Song cycle, D. 957) in the Liszt’s transcription proffers a series of grim chords on the subject of identity-crisis, much in the manner of a brooding pre-Alban Berg sonata. The Rellstab Aufenhalt provides a meditation from Nature, a theme common to both Schubert and Liszt, a piece emotionally stormy and then chorale-like in its final page. The “La Chasse” Etude (after Paganini) plays with resonant textures and registrations, setting the fox-hunt in music-box and organ sonorities, respectively. Some lovely tones from Bognar’s Hamburg Steinway make the instrument as transparently harplike as it can be symphonic. The Shakespeare study injects a moment of levity and wistful romance in to an otherwise austere and impassioned universe.

The grimly fateful opening of Liszt’s Dante Sonata (from the “Italian Year of Pilgrimage,” 1838-39) conveys the “Abandon All Hope” motif from Inferno by means of a tritone descent in octaves, setting the tone of a wild, despairing ride into the Abyss that will eventually rise by the same power of ecstasy into a contemplation of Bliss. Bognar makes an impressive debut in this piece, much as David Bar-Illan had in his RCA LP some fifty years ago. The legato playing by Bognar persuasively transports us to more ethereally poetic regions, where salvation reigns. The right-hand arpeggios assume a gossamer luster and cumulative sweep quite reminiscent of the best pages in Liszt from veterans Cziffra and Horowitz.

—Gary Lemco