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Liszt: Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2; Piano Sonata

Alexander Ullman (piano); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton (Rubicon)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Liszt
Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2; Piano Sonata in B minor
Alexander Ullman (piano); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton
Rubicon RCD1057   69:19 mins

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One can get the feeling, occasionally, that musicians are playing not the music itself, but what they think it is – which could be one way that Liszt has sometimes become too bombastic. That’s decidedly not the case in this delectable album, which contains some of the classiest pianism I’ve heard in the concertos recently. Alexander Ullman, aided and abetted by Andrew Litton and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, brings a particularly fine sense of characterisation to these sometimes problematic pieces. No. 1 emerges as a filigree, fantastical, glittering creation in which the solo triangle for once seems a flicker of subtlety; and No. 2 offers the most high-stepping, flamboyant moments, allowing enough swagger, but never losing an essential elegance and poise.

Ullman’s control is simply magnificent, whether in the clarity of his touch, the way he phrases the delicately rhetorical fioritura, or his gradation of dynamics within a trill or a run (try the end of the First Concerto’s first movement). Sometimes he can even create the bizarre illusion that this is happening in one sustained note. His account of the B minor Sonata is highly impressive, too, though perhaps does not have quite the same edge of originality that makes the concerto performances so special.

The orchestra is on strong if solid form and there are some fine solos from cellist Susan Monks and leader Stephen Bryant. Recorded sound is generally very good. The piano is rather forward in the concertos – but this allows the soloist’s splendid details their rightful spotlight.

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Jessica Duchen