Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Les Préludes; Mazeppa

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COMPOSERS: Liszt
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Les Préludes; Mazeppa
PERFORMER: Geoffrey Tozer (piano); Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Neeme Järvi
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 9360 DDD
The present-day fame of Liszt, one of the most Romantic figures of the 19th century, rests as much on the anecdotal evidence of his virtuosity as on his compositions, few of which have truly entered the popular mainstream. You would have thought that the two piano concertos, at least, would be as much part of the core repertoire as Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky – but they have never quite made it. They have beautiful tunes, stirring climaxes, and require, as you might expect, a formidable technique. The problem lies in their modest length (around twenty minutes each) and their original, not to say eccentric, construction: no conventional movements, but a series of episodes painted with vivid colours and bold contrasts. While there is no doubting the effectiveness of many individual moments, the overall effect can be fragmentary.

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Järvi’s approach, typically, is to see the diversity of these concertos as a challenge to the athleticism of his orchestra and soloist. He enjoys the mood swings and exaggerates the speed changes. It is a full-frontal exposure which is certainly arresting in the grand perorations but unsympathetic to the quieter moments, making a nonsense, for example, of the limpid orchestral colours at the end of the central adagio in the first concerto.

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The two symphonic poems fare better for being, I suspect, rather less assiduously rehearsed. Both have noisy climaxes (Mazeppa, in particular, is noteworthy for splendid tunes hijacked from elsewhere in Liszt’s music), which are accomplished without the brutal assertiveness of the concertos but with beguiling warmth instead. Christopher Lambton