Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1 and No. 2 (CD review)

Sviatoslav Richter, piano; Kiril Kondrashin, London Symphony Orchestra. HDTT.

Very few discs can lay claim to being definitive recordings of particular classical works. Carlos Kleiber's DG rendering of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony comes to mind as definitive; maybe Reiner's Bartók Concerto for Orchestra and Pollini's Chopin Piano Concerto. And for the purposes of the present review, it's Sviatoslav Richter's 1961 LSO accounts for Philips of the two Liszt Piano Concertos, here remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers).

For over half a century Richter's recordings of the Liszt Piano Concertos have remained the benchmarks by which other recorded performances have stood or fallen; Richter's are interpretations of volatile beauty, excitement, and poetry. Yes, especially the poetry. No one quite captured the lyrical pleasures of these concertos as Richter did, all the time conveying the big moments with an equally virtuosic skill. That's not to say I've always liked Richter in everything he's done; he sometimes appeared to me a bit too cold, too distant; but here in the Liszt he captures the bravura of Liszt, the color, and the introspection.

What's more, Maestro Kiril Kondrashin matches Richter's intensity, and the London Symphony plays with consummate skill. In fact, no one involved with this project was less than excellent. The performance is a classic, to be sure.

Robert Fine and Wilma Cozart Fine of Mercury Records recorded the two concertos for Philips in 1961 on 35mm film, and HDTT transferred the music to disc from a Philips 4-track tape in 2014. The first CD version of these 1961 recordings appeared some thirty years ago in what I thought sounded like carelessly overbright transfers, with an alarmingly higher-than-usual tape hiss. Then Ms. Cozart Fine remastered them for a Philips Solo disc in 1995 and rectified most of the first CD's shortcomings. Now we have the HDTT remastering, and it's as good as or better than ever.

Sviatoslav Richter
Comparing the HDTT and Philips Solo discs side by side, I found the HDTT product overall a tad richer, warmer, and fuller, and the Philips disc a touch clearer, more transparent. At least that was my initial impression during the opening movement of the first concerto. As I kept switching back and forth between the two, however, I realized things were not quite so simple. On occasion, the Philips disc sounded warmer and the HDTT clearer. Go figure. By the time I had finished listening to the sound of both concertos, I was ready to throw up my hands in despair of picking a sonic winner. Which is probably saying a lot for the work HDTT did, given that Ms. Cozart Fine had the master tapes to play with, whereas HDTT had only the commercial tape.

Advantages and disadvantages? First and foremost, there could have been more material on the HDTT disc. The fact is, the two concertos are under twenty minutes apiece, leaving close to forty minutes of free space on the disc. The Philips Solo disc couples the concertos with Liszt's Sonata in B minor, also with Richter, making it a better bargain for its playing time and added attractions. On the other hand, the HDTT disc is easier to find (see below), while Philips, being out of business for many years, last produced their disc over two decades ago, and it may prove difficult to find new copies. Moreover, HDTT make their remastering available in a wide variety of disc formats, digital downloads, and price points, which could prove attractive to a lot of potential buyers.

For further information on HDTT products, prices, discs, and downloads in a variety of formats, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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.

Mission Statement

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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa