Gramophone - Tuesday, July 26, 2011 - Written by Jed Distler

We've got a little Liszt

Exploring 'the greatest life ever lived'

At least three times during of his July 18 International Keyboard Institute & Festival programme, writer and radio personality David Dubal said that Franz Liszt experienced the greatest life ever lived. I guess that’s true.

Imagine being in Liszt’s shoes, or, better still, having his hands, inhabiting his mind. Imagine taking the relatively new pianoforte to new levels of virtuosity and expression. Imagine being a sex symbol, superstar, groomer of young talent, inventor of the recital, masterclass, tone poem, and transcendental etude. Imagine having a harmonic sense that foams at the mouth and sends smoke out of your ears. And then dropping out of the concert arena to concentrate on composing, from the celebrated B Minor Sonata and undervalued Hungarian Rhapsodies to those bizarre late pieces. If anyone can “sell” Liszt, Dubal can. Dubal not only discussed Liszt’s multi-faceted musical world, but also drew attention to Liszt’s generosity of spirit and cultural curiosity. He was almost as prodigious a writer of letters as he was an indefatigable transcriber of orchestral works for the piano, and a seasoned art connoisseur.

Dubal interspersed his comments with recorded examples. These included Horowitz’s galvanizing 1920 E-flat Paganini Etude and a live 1951 excerpt from the Sixth Rhapsody, where the octaves slowly gain momentum before engulfing Carnegie Hall in a tidal wave of sound. I must admit that I didn’t care for Simon Barere’s astonishingly accurate Gnomenreigen and La Leggierezza, which are quick on the draw but slow on the musicality. But at least Dubal played Benno Moiseiwitsch’s La Leggierezza too, which stands among the five greatest piano recordings ever made. An indefatigable promoter and nurturer of young keyboard talent, Dubal shared the platform to showcase three pianists (Wael Farouk, Benjamin Laude and Xu Han) in short Liszt selections.

Cyprien Katsaris’ July 20 programme found the brilliant, idiosyncratic pianist in a more settled mood than when he played in New York two months ago. He gave over most of the first half to a continuous mix culled from Liszt’s late pieces, played with three-dimensional dynamic scaling and focused intensity. While Katsaris’ fluent mastery cannot convince me that Liszt’s deadly dull Chaconne from Handel’s Almira is worth any pianist’s effort, it was wonderful to hear the Wagner/Liszt Liebestod taken as a brisk, long lined stroll rather than a brooding crawl, plus a glittering Fifth Rhapsody. If Chico Marx had the chops and the musicianship to play Haydn’s C Major Sonata No 35, that’s exactly what we heard from Katsaris. If his Chopin A Major Polonaise oozed vulgarity in the form of brash octave doublings, inverted dynamics, freakish inner voices, and mauled rhythms, at least afterwards Katsaris warned young pianists in the house NOT to play the Polonaise as he just did! Immediately following his deliciously slapdash rewrite of Gottschalk’s The Banjo, Kastaris offered an improvisation which turned out to be high-octane cocktail pianist renditions of classical music’s greatest hits. It was as if the Liberace Museum had never closed.

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