Saturday, 31 January 2015

Review: Liszt - Totentanz, Malediction, Fantasia - Jorge Bolet - LSO, Fischer, 1984, Decca

Recorded in March 1984 in Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, these recordings capture Jorge Bolet, his Bechstein, the London Symphony and Ivan Fischer in top form. The total timing is miserable (about 46 minutes), but the three works are among Liszt's finest creations for piano and orchestra.

Malediction is an early work for piano and strings, an astonishing thing for an inexperienced young composer to create in the mid-1830s. As Humphrey Searle has told us, the beginning explores a stunning effect that was not repeated until Stravinsky's Petrouchka – some 80 years later! The MS is untitled; the misleading title comes from the opening phrase, but the scope of the piece is considerably broader. The Fantasia is an ingenious arrangement of Liszt's own 14th Hungarian Rhapsody. Light stuff, but great fun. Totentanz is generally considered Liszt's greatest masterpiece in the genre, and with good reason. Constructed as a set of variations on the "Dies Irae" chant, the work reveals Death in all of her/his/its guises. Bemused Bela Bartok lamented the lyrical passages; he thought they weakened the work. He might have thought otherwise could he hear this recording.

Much has been written, with some justification but also with a great deal of exaggeration, about the inadequacy of Jorge Bolet's late recordings for Decca. Slow, stodgy, sterile they have been called. This is tosh. You needn't worry about this recording anyway. Jorge burns and melts the keyboard. The playing here reveals all of his best qualities: enormous sonority without banging, beauty of sound without lacking drama, exquisite phrasing without losing the overall structure, subtle tempo fluctuations and dramatic accents without self-indulgent mannerisms. In short, virtuosity and musicianship of the highest order. Never have these works been taken more seriously. Never have they been played in a grander and nobler way. The results fully justify the means.

There is an early recording (1960) of the Fantasia with Robert Irving and Symphony of the Air for Everest. It is a fine recording, in stellar early stereo captured on 35 mm magnetic film, but it is no match for this one. And I don't mean the sonics. In 1960, Bolet treats the Fantasia as a showpiece. In 1984, he treats it as a masterpiece. Of course it is both. But given the choice, I will definitely go with the digital rendition.

If you are fan of Cziffra's Fantasia and Zimerman's Totentanz, you may want to skip this recording. If you want just one recording of these works as a reference, you can do so much worse than this one. If you seriously care for Liszt's works for piano and orchestra, you have no excuse to skip this recording. If you by any chance happen to be a fan of Jorge Bolet but still don't have this recording, what are you waiting for?

The sound is glorious, with stupendous dynamic range (note the orchestral explosion in the end of Totentanz!) and perfect balance between piano and orchestra. Fischer handles the baton with authority and understanding. He easily rivals Karajan in the Fantasia and clearly surpasses Ozawa in Totentanz.

Great stuff. Worth having at any price. Get it while you still can.


  1. I see you have passed midnight already. Fun to see I am writing in the future.

    Sorry that all this is way over my head (and think that I dare make a comment!) I do like the Hungarian Rhapsody, but I haven't listened to it for years. Will try to find it.

    I hope I can make a more sensible comment soon.

    1. Yeah, way past midnight already. Insomnia is a terrible thing, let me tell you...

      I doubt even seldom recorded heavy stuff like "Totentanz" or "Malediction" is over head, though you may well like it as much as I did Tom Waits. :-)

      Please do comment at any time, especially after midnight.