Liszt: Paganini Studies & Schubert March Transcriptions
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Liszt : Six Grandes Etudes de Paganini pour piano - Transcriptions pour le piano de Marches de F. Schubert / Marc-André Hamelin, piano
It was the 21-year-old Liszt's encounter with Paganini in concert that first set him on the path of becoming an instrumental virtuoso himself, and what better material to show off his skills than his transcriptions for piano of some of the works with which the violinist stunned his public. Schumann, who had already done some Paganini transcriptions of his own, wrote admiringly that the Liszt works were "probably the most difficult ever written for the pianoforte". No problems there for Marc-André Hamelin, whose quicksilver technique is well up to the task. But the artistry in this music is not just in being able to play it but in throwing it off with a light hand, and here Hamelin is really in his element, beguiling the ear with wittily delicious playing worthy of Paganini himself. Try "La campanella" and be prepared to be delighted. There is weightier material in the three Schubert marches, which Liszt loved so much that aside from these transcriptions he also arranged them for orchestra and for piano duet. Again it is the great subtlety of Hamelin's understated playing which lifts the music, and as ever with Hyperion discs the piano rings out with marvellous clarity. -Keith Clarke
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So why not five stars? Well, in places this fiendishly tricky music seems - if one can believe it - to come almost *too* easily to Hamelin. I found some of his playing of the Studies in particular somewhat mannered here and there, as if he had become bored and was trying to spice things up for himself as well as the listener. No.2 (the "Octave" Study) suffered particularly from this, though there were instances elsewhere. Sometimes less is more, a lesson which, on this evidence, Hamelin has yet to learn fully. I still have a cherished old Pye Golden Guinea LP on which Bela Siki plays the Studies (coupled with the B minor Sonata) somewhat less spectacularly but, for my money at least, rather more musically than some of them are presented here.
Still a fine CD though, with top-notch sound quality.
Of the Etudes, of note, are numbers 2, 3 and 4 - these these feel like true living performances. Not that the others are unsatisfying, I just happen to personally prefer the renditions of 2,3 and 4, where I felt a particular intensity and clarity. I've heard many recordings of pianists whisking through these works, making them into ego showpieces. None of that with Hamelin: he comes across as a wonderfully honest musician and his Liszt playing puts the likes of Leslie Howard (who bombastically struts through each work, sometimes very distastefully) to shame.
Schubert rarely agrees with me, so my review is based almost solely on the Liszt. However, the Schubert was not at all unpleasant and worked in the context of this CD as an amiable antidote.
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good recorded versions of the paganini etudes have been hard to come by, as they tend to get overshadowed by the transcendental etudes. hamelin is entirely up to the technical challenges, though i found an imbalance in his approach: the delicate works or passages, in particular the "campanella" etude (adapted from a paganini violin concerto) are utterly ravishing, with a delicacy and fluency of touch that is like nothing i've heard in these works before. but the beefier and more dramatic passages, for example the opening of the first etude, seem relatively restrained and even lackluster. odd, as similar passages in the medtner works are enunciated with plenty of spit.
i found the schubert marches less appealing musically, though if you don't like what you're hearing just wait for a minute or two and the themes will change. i hear in these works a schubert vacillating between the poetic sonata composer and the more virtuosic "wandererfantasie" composer, and not coming down on either side.
until hamelin gets around to recording the transcendental etudes, i can strongly recommend the boris berezovsky version on emi, or the old ashkenazy recording -- if you can find it.