Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor; Benediction of God in Solitude; Venezia e Napoli; Fantasie and Fugue on the theme B-A-C-H

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COMPOSERS: Liszt
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Piano Sonata in B minor; Benediction of God in Solitude; Venezia e Napoli; Fantasie and Fugue on the theme B-A-C-H
PERFORMER: Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67760

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The musical world isn’t short of pianists with an ultra-fluent technique. Even so, Marc-André Hamelin’s is a phenomenon: such rippling evenness of tone, flawless clarity, and rapid-fire precision together suggest something of what contemporary accounts tell us Liszt’s own playing was like, in this kind of department at least. Meanwhile in terms of interpretation, the rather mixed level of success here is par for the course, given the extreme and mercurial nature of Liszt’s demands.
 
In the B-A-C-H Fantasy and Fugue, Hamelin allows the work’s design to unfold with a no-nonsense directness that ideally suits its rather didactic manner. The very different world of Benediction of God in Solitude brings a less convincing response. The rapturously beautiful opening, like the central section, surely begins too prosaically for what is, after all, a musical vision of divine grace; and Hamelin’s manner in the bigger passages is excitable rather than ecstatic. Nor does Venezia e Napoli’s alternation of soulful atmospherics and headlong élan emerge too well from this rather under-characterised account.
 
Then comes the Sonata. Does anything in music present a greater interpretative challenge? Hamelin comes up with one of the finest recordings I’ve yet heard. Certainly I can’t think of one where Liszt’s immense single-movement design hangs together better. Under Hamelin’s astonishing fingers, the work’s progress unfolds with a fusion of spontaneity and seeming inevitability that enthrals both mind and ear as a great masterpiece should. Malcolm Hayes