Idiosyncratic – but compelling!
At such a great bargain price (~10 euros at Amazon.de, ~$12 at Amazon.com, as of June 2013) this box-set really should be snatched 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 Religieuses (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 Legendes. As a special bonus, the fifth CD (and the only one except the Harmonies that was 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 a Jorge Bollet might offer you. The Consolations and the Liebesträume are rushed and insensitive, though neither of the sets is entirely without merit. In much the same way, signor Ciccolini largely misses the poetry of the Ballades and most of the pieces from the Harmonies, but even in its wildest moments his playing never degenerates into the mindless banging so fashionable nowadays among ''Liszt interpreters''; the rather fast tempi sound really 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 probably some of the fastest on record. They do lack subtlety, but there is an exhilarating vitality and lots of raw passion to compensate for that.
Taken as a whole, this set is superbly recorded and spectacularly played. Années de Pèlerinage is the highlight in both aspects: 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 and more profound renditions of Chapelle de Guillaume Tell and Orage – even Bolet and Berman couldn't match Ciccolini's grandeur here. The two Legendes come pretty close to that level and so do many of the operatic transcriptions, most notably the famous Waltz from Gounod's Faust, the heart-rending Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and especially Liszt's amazing paraphrases of themes from Verdi's Aida and Il Trovatore. These are almost literally hair-raising recordings. But very musical too.
If you are fan of Liszt's piano works played in a powerful manner with a great deal of freedom in terms of dynamics and tempi, this box-set is definitely for you. At that price it's a steal!
P.S. The booklet is utterly disappointing. It contains only one poorly written, rambling and exceedingly superficial essay of little if any value. But at this price this is to be expected, of course. At least detailed tracklisting and recording details are provided (open in a new window for full size image):