Idiosyncratic – but compelling!
At such great bargain prices (~10 Euros at Amazon.de, ~$13 at Amazon.com, as of January 2018), this set should be grabbed by everybody who loves the piano music of Franz Liszt. For here you get complete recordings of two magisterial cycles – Années de pèlerinage and Harmonies poétiques et peligieuses (the latter vastly under-recorded in toto) – as well as several smaller sets of pieces such as the three Liebesträume (there is no such thing as ''Liebestraum''), the six Consolations, the two Ballades, and the two Légendes. As a special bonus, the last CD (and the only one, except Harmonies, digitally recorded) offers an excellent selection of operatic paraphrases ranging from Gounod and Donizetti to Verdi and Wagner.
Aldo Ciccolini is one of those rare pianists who can play with tremendous power and rather on the fast side, yet somehow manage not to sound vulgar or bombastic. The lyrical moments certainly are his weak point, and here he falls rather short of what Jorge Bolet and Claudio Arrau may offer you. But taken on his own, without the dubious benefit of comparisons, his brisk pace is quite refreshing, especially considering the modern vogue for slow motion which is misguidedly equalled with musicianship. Ciccolini's ''Tarantella'', Dante Sonata and Second Ballade are some of the fastest and most furious on record. They do lack subtlety, but there is an exhilarating vitality and lots of raw passion to compensate for that. On the other hand, ''Angelus'' is a fine example for an exquisite and sensitive performance of a deceptively simple piece. Ciccolini conjures a lovely carillon indeed!
On the whole, the set is spectacularly played and superbly recorded. Années de pèlerinage is the standout in both respects: the sound has amazing depth and clarity for recording made in the early 1960s (and for EMI at that!) and Ciccolini's devil-may-care virtuosity is just about irresistible. I have yet to hear more powerful yet more profound renditions of ''Chapelle de Guillaume'' Tell and ''Orage'' – even Bolet and Berman couldn't match Ciccolini's grandeur here. He seems equally at home in the much bleaker world of the ''third year''. He is equally peerless in the bunch of operatic paraphrases, recorded in splendid digital sound, on the last disc. Gounod's Waltz is dazzling and Wagner's Liebestod is heart-rending, but Ciccolini saves his best for the amazing transformation of famous ensembles from Verdi's Aida, Rigoletto and Il Trovatore. These are literally hair-raising performances; but very musical, too.
My only sonic quibble is that the 1970/71 recordings sound a little thin and shrill, especially the Ballades. This is strange, for they were produced and engineered by the same legendary team (René Challan and Paul Vavasseur, respectively) as the Années, but it’s not something to complain too much about. And anyway the playing redeems the sonic imperfections. Neither the Ballades nor the Légendes sound any the worse for being taken rather faster than usual. Yes, the Second Ballade is blistering, to say the least, in the first Aldo gets a little carried away with the dextrous fingers of his right hand. But the final results remain compelling, and that’s what matters. Signor Ciccolini somewhat misses the poetry of the Consolations and the Liebesträume, but neither set is without merit as a more robust alternative to what is generally drown in sluggish sentimentality. He is definitely not unmusical. The famous ''Liebestraum [sic] No. 3'', as it turns out, sounds lovely even when it is squeezed in less than four and a half minutes.
Much the same is the case with most of the pieces from Harmonies. Ciccolini’s “Bénédiction...” and “Funérailles” may or may not rank with the finest on record, but even in its wildest moments his playing never degenerates into the mindless banging so fashionable nowadays among ''Liszt interpreters''. In the lesser-known pieces – namely 8/10 of this cycle! – Ciccolini is fantastic. I have never heard the opening “Invocation” and the closing “Cantique d’amour” more gorgeously orchestrated on the piano. The sound of these 1990 recordings is as good as it gets. Seldom, alas, is piano sonority captured with such vividness. Even more seldom, alas, is this cycle recorded complete. What a pity! It contains a lot more than “Bénédiction...” and “Funérailles”.
If you are fan of Liszt played in a powerful manner with a great deal of freedom in terms of dynamics and tempi, this set is definitely for you. At that price it's a steal!
PS. Jeremy Siepmann’s liner notes are disappointingly brief and superficial. But at this price that is to be expected, of course. At least the booklet contains detailed track-listing and recording details (open in a new window for full-size image):