Staatskapelle Berlin Orchestra
On its face, this CD is a real curiosity because Daniel Barenboim offers his first-ever recordings of Franz Liszt's two piano concertos, and Pierre Boulez leads the Berlin Staatskapelle in performances that would have been unimaginable when these artists were younger. Barenboim, a subtle intellectual at the keyboard, is one of the last pianists one would envision playing the flashy, virtuosic parts of these works, while Boulez, once the supposed enemy of all things Romantic, seems to have yielded at last to the attractions of Liszt's vision and conceded that these grandiose warhorses contain music of considerable merit. This is no doubt due to a long-in-coming critical reassessment of Liszt's place in the canon. Since the late 20th century, his music has been increasingly understood as a precursor to modernism, and it is presumably easier to reconcile with Barenboim's and Boulez's earlier reservations. Still, listeners will care more about the quality of the performances, and it must be said that there's a precision in the execution that is predictable for both musicians, and the expression leans more to the reflective side of Liszt, rather than to technical wizardry. For connoisseurs who can appreciate the refinement of Barenboim's playing, and the rather unsentimental, efficient approach of Boulez's accompaniment, this is a worthwhile album that presents the concertos and two solo encores in live performances that will satisfy. The microphone is quite close to Barenboim, so everything is captured with realistic presence, including the thumping of the pianist's feet.
As a young firebrand, Boulez found Stravinsky superficial, so what was Liszt, a bunko artist? they make an odd couple, without a doubt, all the more because the orchestral parts to the two Liszt concertos are generally tossed out with minimal rehearsal as so much rum-tum. Yet lingering in the back of my mind I've always wondered f someone could make something special out of the moody blue opening to Concerto no. 2. Whether it attracted Boulez in particular or not, this work is placed first, and he conducts it with splendid feeling and refinement. Aided by excellent sound form DG, we get to savor the score in detail. for his part,Barenboim strikes a good balance between the keyboard showmanship built into the piano part and a refined musician's desire to match Boulez's level of artistry. The result is a surprising triumph in which nothing is turned into brassy vulgarity. Only the unredeemable finale is allowed to kick its heels. If you prefer to see red meat thrown to the lions, this reading may be too sober, halting, and sensitive, yet Barenboim's technique is up ot the challenge, and he plays a good instrument that is well captured. Concerto no. 1 is about as subtle as Barnum and Bailey's but just as crowd-pleasing, so there's not much reason to refine it into something it isn't. Barenboim and Boulez may veer too far in that direction, but on the whole they are as effective as in the Second. Liszt put his heart into bombast, and the performance reflects it. Again, the huge, powerful piano sound that the engineers have captured is a major asset. The Scherzo is delightful in the interplay of keyboard filigree and the triangle. (It's a small detail, but the exquisite way in which the triangle's overtones are perfectly caught shows how good digital recordings can be.) The finale could be a touch more triumphant as martial, as the score directs, but no one will doubt Barenboim's powerful playing. As encores we get him alone in the third Consolation and first Valse oubliee, both nicely done, although memories of Horowitz in the waltz are not remotely challenged.
- Blair Sanderson (All Music Guide)