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Monday, October 3, 2011

Comparative Listening: Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 in E♭Major

It's been a little while since we've done Comparative Listening, the feature where five (or so) recordings of the same work battle for shelf space. Today, we're celebrating the 200th birthday of piano virtuoso and composer Franz Liszt, examining recordings of his Piano Concerto No. 1.

The contenders:
  • London Symphony Orchestra cond. Josef Krips; Wilhelm Kempff, Piano (DG, 1953)
  • Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra cond. Kurt Masur; Michel Beroff, Piano (Philips, 1981)
  • New York Philharmonic cond. Leonard Bernstein; Andre Watts, Piano (Sony, 1963)
  • London Symphony Orchestra cond. Claudio Abbado; Martha Argerich, Piano (DG, 1968)
  • Budapest Festival Orchestra cond. Karl Anton Rickenbacker, Leslie Howard, Piano (Hyperion, 1998)
  • Munich Philharmonic cond. Thomas Hengelbrock; Alice Sara Ott, Piano (DG, 2010)
  • Vienna Philharmonic cond. Valery Gergiev; Lang Lang, Piano (Sony, 2011)
Franz Liszt's first piano concerto consists of four movements, played without a break. The composer, already the rage of Europe as a touring virtuoso, broke fresh ground with this work. As we celebrate his 200th birthday, let's look at different performances available on CD.

You can tell a lot about how the Liszt First Concerto is going to play out by how the piano soloist attacks the hellishly difficult opening cadenza. Wilhelm Kempff plays with astonishing speed and produces growling low notes. In the 1981 Philips recording, Michel Beroff offers a quiet, restrained take with expert conducting from Kurt Masur.

This early 1968 recording with Martha Argerich is impressive from start to finish.. She breathes fire right out of the box before settling down into the Beethoven-inspired main theme. Lang Lang's brand-new recording on Sony with the Vienna Philharmonic (coming out tomorrow) benefits from terrific orchestral playing under Valery Gergiev and pianism that alternates between fiery cadenzas and feline grace.

Some recordings present the two central movements as one big track, as they flow into each other without a break. Together, the Andantino and Prestissimo form a ten-minute structure. Ultimately, it builds to a recap of the opening of the Allegro.

The New York Philharmonic (under Leonard Bernstein) sounds splendid in this movement with the orchestra caught better than the piano part. This is not the fault of soloist Andre Watts. Leslie Howard, whose recording is available as part of his mammoth complete Liszt edition on Hyperion, produces bell-like tone in the cadenzas. He is helped by the idiomatic playing of the Budapest forces.

The final movement, a sprightly march, is played with great authority by the Viennese forces, particularly the descending figures in the heavy brass that introduce the first solo. Mr. Lang's fingers dance easily across the keys, playing these runs with astonishing speed. Alice Sara Ott uses force on the authoritative main theme, but her playing sounds clipped.

The strongest last movement belongs to the venerable German pianist Wilhelm Kempff, whose Beethoven recordings inspired a legion of aspiring pianists. Mr. Kempff takes a heavier approach to the piano part, rolling down the keyboard with great authority. Finally, Michel Beroff's performance with Kurt Masur is well conducted, and this underrated pianist plays with great speed and precision.

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