Liszt: The 2 Piano Concertos (SACD review)

Also, Totentanz; Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Tunes.  Nareh Arghamanyan, piano; Alain Altinoglu, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 397.

This is only the second album for the relatively young Armenian pianist Nareh Arghamanyan, her first being a program of Liszt and Rachmaninov sonatas a couple of years earlier for the Analekta label. Audiences perhaps know her best for winning a slew of piano competitions over the past decade, things like the 2009 “Sparkasse Wortersee” Competition in Austria; the 2008 Montreal International Musical Competition; the 2007 Piano Campus International piano competition, Pontoise; the 1999 Armenian Legacy, First National piano competition, Armenia; the 1998 International Competition "Little Prince" for young talents in Zaporozhye, Ukraine; and the 1997 International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Yugoslavia. Here, she makes a good showing in the two Liszt Concertos, the Totentanz, and the Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Tunes.

Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886) started writing his Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major around 1830 and worked on it for a quarter of a century, finally committing it to paper in 1849, and premiering it in 1855. You might say he had plenty of time to perfect it. The fascinating thing about the First Concerto is that even though we usually hear it in three distinct movements--a traditional opening Allegro, a slow Adagio combined with a vivacious Scherzo, and then an Allegro finale--the movements are really like one continuous piece, with variations on common themes throughout.

The First Concerto begins in a big, grand manner, in the style of Beethoven, Schumann, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky, and Ms. Arghamanyan, Maestro Alain Altinoglu, and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra play it in just such a big, grand fashion, plus.

Yet Ms. Arghamanyan is quite sensitive and, of course, most virtuosic. So she handles both the grand statements and the more-poetic ones with equal ease. Moreover, Altinoglu conducts with a deft touch, lending a bravura accompaniment at times and a quiet support when needed. The heroic opening theme comes through in dazzling style, the lyrical second-movement Quasi-Adagio is as sweet as one could imagine, and following without a break the Scherzo and then the Allegro finale proceed in exemplary fashion.

Unlike my recent listening to another young virtuoso pianist, Lang Lang, doing Chopin in a manner I felt was more for effect than anything else, I found Ms. Arghamanyan’s playing searing and soulful. While her renditions of the Liszt concertos may not be quite up to those of Sviatoslav Richter (Philips), Alfred Brendel (Philips), or Leonard Pennario (HDTT), they are close.

Liszt began his Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Minor in 1839, some sixteen years before premiering the Concerto No. 1, which is why you’ll sometimes find No. 2 listed first on a recording, although not here. The Second Piano Concerto is more like a typical Liszt tone poem than the First, so it’s a little different from what most other composers were writing at the time. As Liszt said, “New wine demands new bottles.” The Second Concerto is less overtly virtuosic than the First, and more rhapsodic, yet it displays any number of melodramatic elements as well. Ms. Arghamanyan again negotiates it dexterously, and aided by PentaTone’s excellent sonics, she and the orchestra make the most of the work.

The two couplings for the concertos also come up well. The Totentanz (“Dance of the Dead”), based on variations of the Dies irae, sounds appropriately menacing, if a bit softer in spots than I’d like. The Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Melodies will remind listeners of another of Liszt’s famous works, the Hungarian Rhapsody  for Piano No. 1 (and the Hungarian Rhapsody for Orchestra No. 14). He believed in getting the most out of his music, and Ms. Arghamanyan plays it charmingly.

PentaTone recorded the music in both stereo and surround for this hybrid SACD at Haus des Rundfunks, RBB, Berlin, in April, 2012. They obtain from the orchestra some of the best sound I’ve heard on a PentaTone release. The Berlin Radio Symphony displays a wonderful depth, air, and transparency, not only in the SACD stereo mode to which I listened but in the regular stereo mode, too, without sacrificing naturalness, smoothness, or warmth. The slight snag is that PentaTone recorded the piano rather closely, and it sometimes dominates the rest of the ensemble. While the piano should be front and center, here it tends to stretch a bit too far across the stage and can at times overwhelm the orchestral support. Nevertheless, even though the recording doesn’t always simulate the most realistic balance between the soloist and orchestra, it does offer a dramatic effect, which in the First Concerto, being as dramatic as it is, anyway, is not entirely a bad thing. Overall, this is probably the best new Liszt recording you’ll find.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa