Franz Liszt was one of the most influential composers of the nineteenth century, with a vast amount of music of high quality and musical value. Unfortunately, there is a trend in the recording world to focus on Liszt's supposed "famous" piano pieces like the Liebestraume No. 3, Un Sospiro, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and La Campanella. Leslie Howard's 59 Volumes of Liszt's music on the Hyperion label is certainly a remarkable exception. But it seems every professional pianist today has his own Liszt CD of music that has been recorded by twenty other pianists. Thankfully, this Naxos release, which constitutes the first Volume in an ever growing series of Liszt's piano music, traverses the "non-famous" and more profound piano works of Liszt.
Liszt's piano transcription of Saint-Saens' "Danse Macabre" is an ingenious arrangement and one which Humphrey Searle believes is "a great improvement on the original work!" Indeed, it captures all of the orchestral effects, dancing skeletons, and vivid colors of this magnificent work. Moreover, Cohen's performance elicits a chilling and exciting atmosphere. One barely has to strain to imagine a troupe of dancing skeletons, conjured easily through the shrieking and rattling registers of the piano. Liszt's "Nuages Gris," an example of pre-Debussy impressionism, is a staple from Liszt's late period and Cohen plays it with ghostly delicacy. Liszt's "Unstern: sinistre, disastro" is startling for its modernism and evocation of an impending misfortune or evil. Cohen's expert handling of dynamics and the sheer power of his emotional involvement makes this a memorable account. A deeper exploration of Liszt's morbid and bleak imagination occurs in the two "La lugubre gondolas." Inspired by Wagner's death, they are visceral, disturbing, hauntingly beautiful, and truly unlike any other music emitted from the piano in the nineteenth century. Not even Chopin accomplishes what Liszt does in making the piano communicate terror, hopelessness and pessimism.
Liszt's "Reminiscences des Huguenots" displays an early but equally impressive stage of Liszt's evolving style. Leslie Howard has recorded this operatic fantasy many times due to the several versions Liszt wrote. Having heard all of Howard's renditions, however, I am stunned to find Cohen's interpretation totally indomitable. He brings this work to a level of brilliance and drama that Howard's execution lacks. Cohen allows the music to breathe and sing; his tempo and phrasing are acute; he refuses to rush through tender moments, but also has sense enough to intensify the bravura sections. So far Cohen has left me exceedingly contented, but he elevates himself even further with his colossal efforts in the piano transcription of "Totentanz." For those unfamiliar with such a work, it is an epic set of variations on the "Dies Irae" plainchant and one of Liszt's masterpieces, "inspired as far back as 1838, when Liszt saw Orcagna's frescoes 'The Triumph of Death' in the Campo Santo at Pisa." Liszt's transcription transforms the work for piano and orchestra into a tour-de-force solo piano composition. Every facet of the original version is absorbed and embraced. More significantly, Cohen commands orchestral sonority, conjures demonic cackles, and gracefully delivers dramatic expression.
Bottom line: I simply cannot resist the urge to call this recording a stunning achievement. These are the kinds of works Liszt should really be admired for. Arnaldo Cohen is virtually obscure in today's recording world, but after hearing his power, sensitivity and interpretative clairvoyance in these Liszt works, I am only baffled by his limited discography. For another inexpensive recording of his, I would direct the reader to this poetic triumph: Brahms: Variations and Fugue in B flat on a Theme of Handel; Schumann: Fantasia in C; Arabesque.