Liszt: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 (HQCD review)
Reviewing classical music has any number of rewards, like the joy of discovering a new treasure but also like the joy re-discovering an old gem. In the case of this HDTT remastering of the mid-Sixties Leonard Pennario recordings of Liszt and Khachaturian piano concertos, it was not only listening for the first time to performances I had long hoped to hear but re-affirming how several old favorites sounded after not visiting them in some years. But let's get to the Pennario recordings.
The album opens with the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major by Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Liszt worked on it for a quarter of a century, starting it around 1830, committing it to paper in 1849, and premiering it in 1855, so he had plenty of time to perfect it. The interesting thing about the First Concerto is that although it's usually heard in three or four distinct movements--a traditional opening Allegro, a slow Adagio and a vivacious Scherzo, then an Allegro finale--the movements are really like one continuous piece, with variations on common themes throughout.
It starts out big and grand, in the manner of Beethoven, Schumann, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky, and pianist Leonard Pennario, conductor Rene Leibowitz, and the London Symphony Orchestra play it brilliantly, yet without any unnecessarily showy effects. Nonetheless, this music is the stuff of virtuosic splendor, and Pennario is fully up to speed. Moreover, the soloist acquits himself suitably in the more lyrical passages as well. Surely, one must count it among the finest performances of this work on disc.
In the meantime, Liszt drafted his Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Minor in 1839, a full sixteen years before premiering the Concerto No. 1, which is why you'll sometimes find No. 2 listed first on a recording (though not here). The Second Piano Concerto is more like a typical Liszt tone poem than No. 1, and as such it is different from what most other composers were offering. As Liszt said, "New wine demands new bottles." The Second Concerto is less overtly virtuosic, and in accordance with that idea, Pennario is less showy in it. In fact, he is downright delicate and poetic, the relaxed Adagio as lovely as almost anything you'll find on record.
The question, though, is whether Pennario matches old favorites, like the classic recordings from Sviatoslav Richter, with Kiril Kondrashin leading the LSO in performances made for Mercury Records just a few years earlier in 1961. Well, the short answer is no. Nothing has matched Richter's performances of the works, and one can hardly fault the Philips reissue of them. Yet, who can live with only one recording of a favorite piece of music? Pennario makes a wonderful alternative; thus, because no one else has done so, it's fortunate that HDTT chose to remaster it on compact disc.
The companion work on the disc is the Piano Concerto in D-flat Major, Op. 38, by Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978), a piece he premiered in 1937. The composer pulls out all the stops here and goes for the throat, Pennario matching him punch for punch. While I find the music rather brash, boisterous, overlong, and often bizarre, I nonetheless found Pennario's realization of it about as good as anyone's.
The sound in the Liszt, recorded by RCA at Kingsway Hall, London, in 1965, gets an LP-to-disc transfer by HDTT with their usual care. The result is quite good, sometimes astonishingly good, especially in terms of the high end, which comes across cleanly and well extended. There are a few moments when engineer Kenneth Wilkinson probably went with a bit too forward a sound in the upper strings, but it's hardly distracting. Most of the time, the recording is smooth and lifelike, if a touch lacking in depth and air and with the piano a tad too close. Nevertheless, the piano tone itself is quite realistic, with one of those reach-out-and-touch-it qualities about it. Excellent transient attack and a wide dynamic range complete the sonic picture admirably.
Capital recorded the Khachaturian piece in 1959, and here the sound, taken from a two-track tape, has a closer feeling than in the Liszt, with slightly fiercer strings, which, perhaps not surprisingly, actually works pretty well given the bombastic nature of the music. HDTT undoubtedly applied some noise processing to both the Liszt and Khachaturian works, reducing tape hiss almost to nothing without affecting the top end of the music in the least.
For comparison purposes, HDTT sent me two copies of the recording, one burned to an HQCD and the other burned to a gold CD. To my ears and on my equipment, the HQCD sounded a little warmer, fuller, and more stable, the gold CD a touch leaner and more brittle. Although these are hardly night-and-day differences, for my money I'd go for the HQ. What's more, for those folks who enjoy rolling their own, HDTT not only make the complete packages available on HQ or gold, they even make blank HQCD's available for sale at their Web site for people who want to download the recordings and burn them themselves; or just want to burn whatever they have on hand in the best possible format.
For details about HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.