Franz Liszt has the reputation of being one of the greatest - perhaps THE greatest - piano virtuosos in the history of music. Much of his piano music is virtuosic and flashy and requires the utmost technical skill. But he also wrote other kinds of music, especially in the latter half of his career, when he concentrated more on religious subjects. Harmonies poétiques et religieuses is an early example of that. It consists of ten pieces for the piano, all rather inward and meditative, with subjects/subtexts both religious and poetic (as the title says).
This inward approach is brilliantly realized by Steven Osborne. His is a very thoughtful interpretation of the pieces, sensitive to every nuance inherent in the music, which he plays with great concentration and skill. This is playing that keeps me alert and, so to speak, sitting on the edge of my seat, which is essential with music that, in the wrong hands, could lull one to sleep. Not so here.
That said, I was rather surprised to read so many negative comments on these pages, especially as this CD has gathered so many laudatory reviews from the international music press. Well, obviously Steven Osborne's playing isn't to everybody's taste; but in this case, I'd rather trust the prestige and experience of the music press, as well as my own ears. This is just playing of superlative beauty and great emotional impact.
Well, I must admit that I was taken a bit aback when listening to the recording for the first time. On first listening, the piano (a Steinway, by the way) sounded quite unusual - harsh and clangy in places, and, like the other reviewer here, I found the extremities of the dynamic range rather annoying. But the ear adjusts surprisingly well. It had much to do with finding the proper volume level; if played with too low volume, you cannot hear the pianissimos; if played on too high, the neighbours could complain at the loud passages... After several listenings now I find that the piano is in fact very well recorded. True, it does sound somewhat different than most piano records I own, but on the whole I must conclude that it's just another angle, or view, on the piano's sound - probably it has a lot to do with where the microphones are placed - and definitely not a worse view for that.
Now I would go almost as far as to say that this is one of the most sublimely beautiful piano CDs in my entire collection. (And, yes, the neigbours have not complained.) I should also add that this CD represents a somewhat rare deviation in my buying habits. I bought my copy in Budapest, a city which I visited recently during the Bicentennial festivities of Franz Liszt's birth, and as I wanted to buy some Liszt I did not already own, this CD seemed like a good choice. Which indeed it was. But should I have based my decision on reading beforehand as many reviews of the CD as I possibly can, which I usually do, I would have probably bought it anyway, considering the favourable response it has received from such respected publications as Gramophone and the BBC Music Magazine (not to speak of classical music Web sites such as ClassicsToday).
So, all in all a superlative CD. The beautiful and otherworldly painting by John Martin on the cover is the final icing on the cake.