Franz Liszt: Complete Piano Music, Vol. 1

Franz Liszt: Complete Piano Music, Vol. 1

by Arnaldo Cohen


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Franz Liszt: Complete Piano Music, Vol. 1

About ten years ago the British label Hyperion Records began a massive recording project: the complete solo piano music of Franz Liszt, an endeavor that would require eighty or more compact discs. This effort would include all versions of Liszt's transcriptions, paraphrases, fantasies, and original compositions. Thus far, the pianist chosen for the project, Leslie Howard (who is President of the British Liszt Society), has reached volume 45 (some issues contain multiple discs) and is thus defying those skeptics who said at the outset he'd never complete the seemingly impossible task. Howard's notices have generally been positive, too. Little more than two years ago the budget label Naxos announced it would launch the same project, but with an arsenal of twenty-five or more pianists that would include Oxana Yablonskaya, Jeno Jando, Philip Thomson, William Wolfram, and Arnaldo Cohen, winner of the 1972 Busoni Piano Competition. This is my first exposure to Cohen, and on the basis of these performances, I can only hope that his name pops up in this series many more times. When he goes head-to-head against Howard, as in "Totentanz" or in the two "Lugubrious (or Funeral) Gondolas," he comes out on top in interpretive insight, and yields little, if anything, in the realm of virtuosity. Howard gives us urgency and frenzy in "Totentanz," qualities, to be sure, that become virtues in this kind of showpiece. But Cohen wrings out more menace, and plays with incredible clarity, even in the loudest passages. You hear inner voices with greater delineation, inner voices that help fill the void left by the absence of the orchestra (this work is a reduction, after all, of the original score for piano and orchestra). Listen to the X-ray clarity and sensitivity of his left hand playing beginning at 1:10 (track 8) and compare it with Howard's comparative haze. For sheer lurid excitement try the passage after the slow middle section, starting at 7:11 where the tempo picks up and leads to the wild repeated notes that demonically, nervously enact the grim dies irae theme. Cohen plays the music here, and in the grander sections that follow, with such Lisztian relish, such dark power as to send chills up your spine. This is Liszt in all his demented, dramatic glory! In the four late pieces ("Nuage gris," "Unstern," and the two "Funeral Gondolas") Cohen harnesses that bizarre Lisztian morbidity and delivers it with a cold sadness, a desolate resignation so appropriate to the expressive nature of these strange pieces. In fact, the "First Funeral Gondola," which contains the most chillingly morbid theme I know of, is rendered as well as I've ever heard it. The "Impromptu" is lovingly played, too, Cohen catching that pre-impressionist side of Liszt with agile fingers and deft wrists that manage scales and dynamics so subtly. In the Meyerbeer- and Saint-Saëns-inspired works Cohen once more demonstrates his versatility: to play this kind of Liszt--transcriptions and fantasies--the artist nearly always must negotiate formidable pianistic hurdles, while imparting a range of color and virtuosic effects to the music. Cohen is fully up to the demands of both these pieces and turns in dramatic readings that make you long for his renditions of the Hungarian Rhapsodies. I hope Naxos has selected him for that corner of the Lisztian repertory. In sum, this is impressive Liszt playing. If you're a Lisztian, or if you think you might want to enter the strange world of this great composer--who is by turns demonic, religious, morbid, ecstatic, frenzied, mesmeric, glorious, demented, romantic, cold, prophetic, virtuosic--by all means try this disc, which, by the way, offers nearly all those diverse elements. It appears Naxos may be about to pull off another coup: their Liszt cycle will cost less than half that of Hyperion's, and their piano sound is decidedly superior, too. And with pianists like Cohen in their fold, they would appear to be the clear choice. Time will tell. I don't mean to denigrate Howard; he's a great pianist, in spite of his often overly fast tempos. Much of his playing is utterly riveting and more than occasionally enlightening. But this is an auspicious start for Naxos on this monumental project, and this disc is highly recommended. I eagerly await the forthcoming issues.

Product Details

Release Date: 06/10/1997
Label: Naxos
UPC: 0730099485227
catalogNumber: 8553852


  1. Danse Macabre, transcription for piano (after Saint-Saëns), S. 555 (LW 273)
  2. Nuages gris (Trübe Wolken), for piano, S. 199 (LW A305)
  3. Unstern! Sinistre, disastro, for piano, S. 208 (LW A312)
  4. Réminiscences des Huguenots, "Grande Fantaisie dramatique" for piano (after Meyerbeer; 3 versions), S. 412 (LW A35)
  5. Die Trauer-Gondel (La lugubre gondola I), for piano (in 6/8), S. 200/1 (LW A319a)
  6. Die Trauer-Gondel (La Lugubre gondola II), for piano (in 4/4), S. 200/2 (LW 319b)
  7. Impromptu (Nocturne), for piano in F sharp major, S. 191ii (LW A256)
  8. Totentanz, for piano, S. 525 (LW A62)

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