WORKS: Piano Sonata in B minor; Concert Paraphrases on Verdi’s Aida and Rigoletto; Vallée d’Obermann
PERFORMER: Emanuel Ax (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: SK 48484 DDD
The Liszt Sonata is a work that people love to hate. But it’s there – an extraordinary single movement, if not encompassing quite the greatest heights or depths possible, at least making a brave stab at them. It is rhetorical, public music, which wins you over by its sheer force and the confidence that sustains the huge design.
Sviatoslav Richter (as recorded live, on two separate occasions) could persuade us that this was really great music; he did it by balancing white hot passion with intellectual certainty as to how details relate to the whole. And, in a more sober way, Peter Donohoe recorded for EMI an account of biblical fervour and weight with a commanding sense of the music’s architectural grandeur.
Emanuel Ax’s recording is not in this class: he is too neat and tasteful to sound like a prophet. Liszt’s grandiloquence is trimmed to suit the gentler listener and he is afraid to let the music expand as amply as Liszt, the great crowd-puller, surely would himself. It may seem a very crude measure, but my advice is to be suspicious of any recording of the sonata that lasts under 30 minutes. This one clocks in at 29 minutes. The sound is admirably clean and focused but lacks depth; I had to turn the volume up. Adrian Jack