Friday, 7 June 2013

Review: Arrau spielt Liszt - Eloquence, 2011, 6 CDs

Liszt for the Ages

So far as I can ascertain, this box set has almost the same contents as the one issued by Philips in their Arrau Heritage series (2003). The only difference is that the latter set includes both recordings of the Sonata in B minor (1970, 1985), whereas this one contains only the later rendition; and the Spanish Rhapsody (CD 6) is missing from the older issue. And, of course, there is the price. The Arrau Heritage issue is monstrously expensive, whereas the Eloquence reissue is embarrassingly cheap: 6 CDs for 20 euros is a terrific bargain. Especially when we are talking of so great a music performed in such a colossal way. But more about that, a little later.

Two major disappointments, to begin with. Both of them are expected and actually insignificant, yet worth mentioning. As usual with budget-price releases, the documentation is scanty and sloppy. No recording dates, let alone locations, are given; only years of release do we have here, and as we all know these are not always a good indication when a recording was made. Besides, there are some ridiculous mistakes, especially in the titles of the Transcendental Studies: Nos. 2 and 10 are listed with names that are popular but were not given by Liszt himself; No. 8 is named in French, whereas the original name is, of course, in German. I have given only the correct titles below. I have taken all years of recording from the best discography of Claudio Arrau I could find online.

The second disappointment is the sound. All these recordings appear now under DECCA, but they were originally made for Philips. And Philips did consistently give Arrau much worse sound than one might expect from recordings that range from the late 1960s to the late 1980s. For the most part the balance is decent, but the timbre is not: the bass is overblown bass, the treble is shrill. The piano often sounds awfully artificial. In case you happen to find something which reminds you of cacophony less than usual, the chances are that it will be flat and muffled. The few digital recordings fare better, but not much better. Fortunately, the sound is for the most at least decent (except, sadly, in the case of the Transcendental Studies). Still more fortunately, Arrau's outstanding artistry easily transcends any sonic shortcomings.

Claudio Arrau's Liszt remains one of the finest on record. Like Jorge Bolet, his great contemporary Lisztian, Arrau always had ''technique to burn'' (Harold Schonberg), but he never used it ostentatiously; he always made it serve the music. Again like Bolet, Arrau almost always favours rather slower tempi than pretty much everybody else, but his tempo fluctuations are so smooth and subtle, that I seldom have sense of anything being too slow (as I often do with Lazar Berman’s Années, for instance). Despite the general slowness of his interpretations, Arrau never was a tepid pianist. Quite to the contrary: even in his seventies, he infused some of Liszt's most challenging works with tremendous power and drama, to say nothing of his highly original, if idiosyncratic, approach. Though not everything from these more than 390 minutes of Liszt is essential, there is not a single ''bad'' performance here.

I have to admit that, when it comes to Liszt, I do prefer Jorge Bolet and his blend of golden tone, supreme elegance and Romantic passion. But Arrau is a sure runner-up, if not exactly a close one. Sometimes I do have some problems with his playing, like his somewhat too loud accompaniment occasionally (as in Benediction..., for instance) or certain sloppiness in some of the Transcendental Studies (nos. 2 and 10, in particular) or just a tad too slow tempo than is reasonable (as in the Sonetto 123 del Petrarca and especially in Valse oubliée No. 1). But all these are minor quibbles of no importance. Arrau's sureness of touch and uniqueness of interpretation still remain an excellent alternative to Jorge Bolet – for though broadly similar, their styles are actually extremely different – as one of those rare pianists who never raped Liszt's most difficult pieces, but rather re-created them with great elegance, penetrating insight and genuine Romantic feeling.

So it is wonderful that the legendary Liszt recordings of Claudio Arrau for Philips – desert-island stuff, all of them – are again available at such an irresistible price. The six discs are neither particularly well-filled nor ridiculously short – all of them have durations between 60 and 70 minutes – but at that price, who cares anyway? Together with Bolet's fabulous nine discs for DECCA, Ciccolini's five discs on EMI and Horowitz's incandescent, if highly selective, four CDs for RCA/Columbia, Arrau's recordings for Philips make an excellent addition to the shelves of every true Lisztian and a worthy tribute to Liszt's genius.

By way of conclusion, track listings with (hopefully correct) years of recording in brackets and short comments.

CD 1:
Piano Concerto No. 1
Piano Concerto No. 2
(Colin Davis & LSO, 1979)
No. 1 Il lamento
No. 2 La leggierezza
No. 3 Un sospiro

Collin Davis is a little sleepy at times but dependable overall. I understand Arrau has better recordings from earlier years of the concerti, but for somebody who was 76 at the time these are amazingly virile performances. The etudes are as beautifully played as they are badly recorded, alas.

CD 2:
Sonata in B minor (1985)
Six Chants polonais (Chopin) (1982):
No. 1 Mädchens Wünsch
No. 2 Frühling
No. 3 Das Ringlein
No. 4 Bacchanal
No. 5 Meine Freuden
No. 6 Heimkehr
Liebesträume, No. 3 (1989)
Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (1989)

This one is something of a disappointment. The Sonata is remarkably fine for an 82-year old man, but Arrau's earlier recording for Philips (1970) is unquestionably the better one and should have been included here; the later attempt is pretty much the same interpretation, but the playing lacks the subtle tempo transitions so characteristic of Arrau and the final result is somewhat incoherent. Nor do the two very late recordings (1989) show him at his best, though one must understand that he was 86 at the time. The third piece from the set Liebesträume (not ''Liebestraum'', as stated carelessly and usually, including on the cover here) is rather charming, but the Mephisto Waltz sounds rather clumsy. Still, spectacular performance for such an old age; I have heard worse from much younger things who bang the piano mercilessly under the delusion that their musical butchery exhibits Romantic temperament.

CD 3:
No. 1 Preludio
No. 2 [Molto vivace]
No. 3 Paysage
No. 4 Mazeppa
No. 5 Feux follets
No. 6 Vision
No. 7 Eroica
No. 8 Wilde Jagd
No. 9 Ricordanza
No. 10 [Alegro agitato molto]
No. 11 Harmonies du soir
No. 12 Chasse neige

This recording is, of course, legendary. For me, Jorge Bolet owns these pieces and his two complete recordings – 1970 for Ensayo and 1985 for DECCA – are by far the finest in my listening experience. Yet again, however, Arrau provides a fascinating alternative. Save for a few mildly rushed or sloppy passages in nos. 2, 8, 10, his taste is impeccable and his technical command of the keyboard is formidable. Of course the most precious quality is the introverted, probing and soul-searching nature of his playing. It's a far cry from many a performance by musical morons with dexterous fingers who take these lovely pieces as purely technical tour de force. Not Claudio, nor Jorge; these are giants from another, and unfortunately long since passed, era.

The only problem with this recording is the absolutely horrible sound which makes me wonder how it was approved for release at all. In short, it's a mess. This set boasts ''new mastering'' (whatever that means) on the cover but it doesn't sound a tad better than the Philips edition coupled with the all Concert and Paganini Etudes with Magaloff. Even on SACD have these etudes been released, and on SACD, too, do they sound like played on a bad instrument situated in a warehouse and recorded by fellows who have not the least idea of sound engineering. Frankly, sometimes even Arrau's great musical insight is hardly enough to bear the cacophonic result which surely wasn't his fault. Too bad that such a stupendous performance should be so badly recorded. One has to get over the sound somehow and enjoy the playing in spite of it.

CD 4:
Verdi paraphrases (1971):
Ernani: Concert paraphrase (S. 432, second paraphrase)
I Lombardi: Salve Maria de Jérusalem (the early version, I think)

This is my favourite disc in the set. The sound is surprisingly fine and Arrau (at 68!) is at his absolute peak, playing with extraordinary dynamic range and power. Rigoletto is scintillating and executed with impeccable taste, the Miserere puts Leslie Howard's timid rendition to shame, the Aida Paraphrase (one of Liszt's most daring experiments) rivals Ciccolini's fiery rendition. Too bad that Verdi's best operas came a bit too late for Liszt to do with them what he had done with Bellini, Donizetti, Meyerbeer and Mozart. Nevertheless, the Verdi paraphrases are all gems that should be performed and recorded more often than they are; this album, actually, is an almost complete collection. What Arrau does with forgotten masterpieces such as the Ernani Paraphrase and the Réminiscences de Boccanegra will make you wonder just why they are forgotten.

CD 5:
Années de Pèlerinage (excerpts)
Première Année Suisse:
No. 1 La Chapelle de Guillaume Tell (1989)
No. 6 Vallee d'Obermann (1969)
Deuxième Année Italie:
No. 5 Sonetto 104 del Petrarca (1969)
No. 6 Sonetto 123 del Petrarca (1969)
No. 7 Dante Sonata (1982)
Troisième Année:
No. 4 Les jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este (1969)

As it seems, Arrau never made a complete recording of this marvellous, if mammoth, cycle. This should be considered a big loss for all Lisztians. These few excerpts appear to be more or less all that he left. Vallée d'Obermann has an almost Horowitzian power, and the Les jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este displays an overwhelming abundance of colours and shades which I, personally, have never heard in any other rendition save Bolet’s. The Dante Sonata is among the slowest on record, yet it is certainly one of the most profound as well. The two sonnets are compelling combination of Bolet's poetic poise and Horowitz's unbridled passion; memorable performances, both of them. But La Chapelle de Guillaume Tell is perhaps the most amazing piece here. It is difficult to believe that this recording was made in March 1989, when Arrau had just turned 86 (!), just a little over two years before his death in fact. The performance is slower than usual, of course, but it has grandeur that very few have been able to capture, no one better than Aldo Ciccolini in his complete recording for EMI.

CD 6:
Ballade No. 2 (1969)
Harmonies poetiques et religieuses
No. 3 Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (1970)
No. 7 Funerailles (1982)
Valse oubliee No. 1 (1969)
2 Concert Etudes (1970):
No. 1 Waldesrauschen
No. 2 Gnomenreigen
Bonus track:
Rhapsodie espagnole (1933, mono recording, abridged)

Bit of a mixed bag, this one. The Ballade is unusually fast for Arrau, but it is never rushed nor does it degenerate into mindless banging, as the renditions of Leslie Howard and Aldo Ciccolini, respectively, occasionally do. All in all, a truly awesome performance! The two pieces from the Harmonies are strange mixtures of good and bad. The Benediction is overall beautifully done, but I do miss Bolet's ethereal serenity; also, there are several awkward pauses which sound a little too mannered to be engaging. The beginning of Funérailles is surprisingly clumsy, having neither Horowitz's mighty clangour nor Bolet's spooky atmosphere, but the middle section is very well-done; so is the monumental climax, even if somewhat lacking in power.

Valse oubliée No. 1 is the only completely disappointing piece on all six discs. (So yes, I was wrong when I said above that there is not even one ''bad'' piece; there is one.) The tempo is abominably slow and it reminds me more of a lullaby than of a waltz. Certainly, this recording cannot hold a candle to any of Horowitz's numerous versions. The Etudes are excellent, however, played with charming vivacity coupled with solid musicianship few pianists achieve in these elusive pieces. Finally, the ''bonus track'' comes out of the blue, but it is rather fascinating to hear Claudio ''burning the keyboard'' at the age of 30: well over 30 years before he started his now legendary Philips recordings that fill the rest of this marvellous set.

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