Liszt: Ballade No. 1 in D flat; Ballade No. 2 in B minor; Weihnachtsbaum

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COMPOSERS: Liszt
LABELS: Chandos Collect
WORKS: Ballade No. 1 in D flat; Ballade No. 2 in B minor; Weihnachtsbaum
PERFORMER: Rhondda Gillespie (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 6629 ADD Reissue (1980, 1982)
Couldn’t the release of Christmas discs be better timed to hit the review pages before Christmas? And couldn’t record companies benefit from a coordinated anti-clash plan? For just as Hyperion and EMI release Liszt recitals from Stephen Hough and Leif Ove Andsnes respectively (see below), Chandos has produced a Liszt recital which would suffer against such competition even if it was worthy of being mentioned in the same breath. But Rhondda Gillespie’s CD is fearfully pedestrian. Her Weihnachtsbaum is an imagination-free zone, without a hint of bitter-sweet evocation; at times it sounds downright unmusical. The Second Ballade, gloriously imagined by Hough and Andsnes, boasts fudged fingerwork and all the grandeur of a school asssembly. The dull recorded sound doesn’t help.

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But Pöntinen’s Evening Bells album is a beautifully thought-out Christmas programme, framed by Kempff’s pure and sombre Bach transcriptions, revelling in Messiaen’s colours and élan and including a Messiaen-like specially composed piece by Pöntinen’s brother Stefan. In Pöntinen hands, Liszt’s Christmas Tree lights up, blazing with fervour, intelligence and poetry; and his account of Reger’s Maria Wiegenlied warms the heart with its tenderness. The clarity of the sound quality is a relief after Chandos’s offering and even Pöntinen’s own programme notes are poetic and inventive. Gillespie’s disc is short – 61 minutes beside Pöntinen’s 77 – but that’s probably just as well. Jessica Duchen