Liszt: Piano Concertos (SACD review)

Also, Malediction. Alexandre Kantorow, piano; Jean-Jacques Kantorow, Tapiola Sinfonietta. BIS 2100.

There are any number of young musicians I've never heard of. For instance, from the biography of this young pianist, "Alexandre Kantorow was born in 1997. After some lessons with Pierre-Alain Volondat, Alexandre joined the Schola Cantorum in Paris to study with Igor Lazko. He has also received advice from such eminent teachers as Jacques Rouvier, Théodore Paraschivesco, Georges Pludermacher, Christian Ivaldi and Jean-Philippe Collard. Alexandre continues his studies at the Paris National Conservatoire with Frank Braley and Haruko Ueda. He has won several first prizes in international competitions, and has played with orchestras such as the Bordeaux Chamber Orchestra, Orléans Symphony Orchestra and the Kaunas Symphony Orchestra in Lithuania."

On the current album, his solo debut with orchestra, Mr. Kantorow plays the two famous Liszt piano concertos and the little concerto "Malediction," accompanied by his more well-known violinist and conductor father Jean-Jacques Kantorow and the Tapiola Sinfonietta.

Insofar as concerns these performances being indispensable additions to every classical music lover's library, I wouldn't go so far as to say so; but they are fine, lyrical accounts of the music, with good nuance and excitement. In fact, out of context, one can hardly fault the performances. The problem comes when one compares Kantorow's readings with some of the classic recordings that have gone before.

Yes, I know it's unfair to make comparisons, but without them it's simply too hard to tell a good performance from a great one. In this case, after hearing Kantorow's rendition of the First Concerto, I listened to Sviatoslav Richter's version with Kiril Kondrashin and the London Symphony (originally on Philips and now remastered by HDTT); then Alfred Brendel with Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic (Philips); and, finally, Leonard Pennario with Rene Leibowitz and the London Symphony (HDTT). Kondrashin is probably still the top-of-the-order, the benchmark by which one must measure all other interpretations, and just a few seconds is all one has to hear to know everything that one needs to know. The Kondrashin performance is majestic, towering, and compassionate, dwarfing all others. Listening again to Kantorow finds him more than adequate but rather smaller, lighter, and more youthful in every way; it's still fun though a whole lot less imposing.

Anyway, the program begins with the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, S.124, which Hungarian pianist, composer, and conductor Franz Liszt (1811-1886) wrote over a period of some twenty-six years, starting in 1830 and premiering it in 1855. Even though we usually hear it, as here, in three distinct movements--a traditional opening Allegro, a slow Adagio combined with an animated Scherzo, and then an Allegro finale--the movements play like one continuous piece, with variations on common themes throughout.

Alexandre Kantorow
The First Concerto begins in a big, grand manner, in the style of Beethoven, Schumann, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky. Here, Kantorow and company produce an energetic realization, even if the orchestral accompaniment appears more petite than it might sound from one of the larger, major ensembles. Still, this is not a bad thing because Liszt had a modest-sized orchestra in mind, in any case. So, the opening sounds fine, and Kantorow is particularly good in the airier, more songlike parts. Then come his best moments in the Adagio movement, beautifully judged, beautifully realized, sensitive, and affecting. There's a charming freshness to the scherzo section, too, and the whole thing ends with appropriate strength and brio.

The Kantorow team chose mostly moderate tempos, but there are times when they speed things up considerably and, conversely, times when things seem to move practically at a standstill. These contrasts do no real harm to the music, but they can be a mite distracting to those used to something more traditional. Likewise, the Kantorows seem to linger longer than usual over certain pauses, which can be momentarily disconcerting.

Liszt started writing his Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, S.125 between 1839 and 1840, putting it away for a decade and not debuting it until 1857, then revising it yet again in 1861. This concerto also sounds like one continuous movement, although Liszt divided it into six separate segments: Adagio sostenuto assai; Tempo del andante; Allegro deciso; Marziale, un poco meno allegro; Un poco meno mosso; and Allegro animato. Kantorow handles it with a deftness of touch, complementing the somewhat chamber-music style of the orchestration. This second of Liszt's principal concertos sounds a little less Romantic and less rhapsodic than the earlier concerto, and, fittingly, Kantorow plays it more spontaneously, yet with a firm direction and considerable feeling. Again, it is in the quieter passages that the pianist seems happiest, his virtuosity always at the service of the score and yielding radiant results.

Between the two major concertos, Kantorow plays the little Concerto in E minor "Malediction" (Curse), written by Liszt in 1831, revised in 1840, then put aside and only published in 1915. It's a remarkable work, predating some of Stravinsky's clashing notes, the piano accompanied only by strings. Maybe Liszt thought it was too much ahead of its time when he decided to set it away. Who knows. The main thing is that Kantorow plays it with an entertainingly sinister delight, the piece never reaching any really venomous heights but appearing soulfully malignant just the same.

Producer and sound engineer Jens Braun (Take5 Music Production) made the album in 24-bit/96 kHz at the Tapiola Concert Hall, Finland in November 2014. The recording team used Neumann and Schoeps microphones; RME, Lake People, and DirectOut electronics; MADI optical cabling; B&W, STAX, and Sennheiser monitoring equipment; and Sequoia and Pyramix digital audio workstations. They created the album for SACD or regular CD hybrid playback, so one can play it in multichannel SACD or two-channel SACD from an SACD player, or in two-channel stereo from a regular CD player. I listened in two-channel SACD using a Sony SACD player.

Except for the piano being too close for my taste, this is one of the best-sounding recordings of the concertos I can remember. The folks at BIS have captured the orchestra with extraordinary clarity and naturalness, wide, transparent, yet not at all bright or hard. The piano, too, appears exceptionally well reproduced, with a full, vibrant tone. But, yes, it does seem well out in front of the orchestra, practically in our laps. Still, it's a small price to pay for a recording as otherwise realistic as this one.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

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I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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