Here's the first part of the Second Piano Concerto played by Alfred Brendel, with Eliahu Inbal conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. (The performance concludes here. There's an interesting video performance by pianist Yakov Fliere, from 1974, with Maxim Shostakovich conducting -- part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.)
We've heard a sampling of Liszt the orchestral virtuoso (in the form of the best-known of his 13 symphonic poems, Les Préludes, Friday night) and of his virtuosic but equally poetic keyboard wizardry (performances by Sviatoslav Richter, Georges Cziffra, and Aldo Ciccolini last night, along with a video performance of the First Piano Concerto).
We've talked before about the emergence in the West of the roster of great Soviet musicians long prevented from performing here by the Stalinist and immediately post-Stalinist regimes. When Emil Gilels, by any standard one of the century's great pianists, caused the predictable furor, he told interviewers that the pianist they really needed to hear was Richter, who was still being kept under wraps. Rather amazingly, he lived up to the hype.
In 1961 in London Richter played both Liszt piano concertos and the Hungarian Fantasia for piano and orchestra with his compatriot Kiril Kondrashin and the London Symphony, and happily Philips recorded the concertos, for a disc that remains a phonographic landmark -- recorded, incidentally by the Mercury "Living Presence" team of producer Wilma Cozart Fine and engineer Robert Fine, though the tapes have for decades now rested exclusively in the hands of the sonically more conservative Philips technical people. It's a pity the two concertos made such a convenient LP, which is presumably what discouraged Philips from recording the Hungarian Fantasia, which turns out to be quite a loss when we hear the live performance. True, notes get spilled all over the place when all hell breaks loose, and this would have been fixed in a studio recording, but my goodness, is it possible not to be blown over by the hurricane force of this outburst?
LISZT: Hungarian Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra
Sviatoslav Richter, piano; London Symphony Orchestra, Kiril Kondrashin, cond. Live performance, 1961
Jorge Bolet, piano; Symphony of the Air, Robert Irving, cond. Everest, recorded c1959
Michel Béroff, piano; Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Masur, cond. EMI, recorded June 1979
Liszt wrote his two piano concertos (and indeed most of a third, only in modern times come to light) at basically the same time, which allowed him to pursue markedly different expressive agendas; the two are so different, and yet so complementary, that they have flourished in each other's company since early LP days. The First Concerto, as you may gather from the video clip we saw last night, is in large measure the Liszt of Les Préludes: grandiose, sweeping, a robust treat. While the Second Concerto indeed builds to a wonderfully grandiloquent march finale, the wonder of this piece is the gentle songfulness of its opening theme, and the way it evolves into that finale.
The piece is basically a theme-and-variations set, in a single movement, though with significant changes of tempo -- and, more significantly, and deliciously under-conspicuously, a slide from triple meter, first to 6/8 duple meter (at the Allegro agitato assai), then briefly back to the 3/4 of the opening (Tempo del Andante) before switching to good old-fashioned square-jawed 4/4 at the Allegro moderato -- the very tempo we're going to need (even with a brief return to the still-duple-meter 6/8) for the outbreak of the Marziale. (And when the Marziale finally breaks out, you really shouldn't have any difficulty hearing in it the lovely original theme.)
We're going to hear the 1961 Richter-Kondrashin studio recording I mentioned above, and also a performance by the highly poetic Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman, whom we heard playing the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto, also with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony, and finally Alfred Brendel's first recording (for Vox).
On a technical note: CD programmers naturally enough treat some (and some cases all) of the tempo changes in the Liszt A major Concerto as appropriate points for tracking; of course on a CD we don't hear those track points. Since in our format I have no way of creating seamless track switches, we're going to hear the piece somewhat broken up, and not identically broken up, so that in the Richter-Kondrashin recording we hear the buildup to and outbreak of the Marziale un poco meno allegro, whereas in the Zimerman-Ozawa the Marziale gets its own track point, and the Vox recording has a slightly different breakdown.
LISZT: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A:
Adagio sostenuto assai; Allegro agitato assai Allegro moderato Allegro deciso; Marziale un poco meno allegro; Allegro animato
Sviatoslav Richter, piano; London Symphony Orchestra, Kiril Kondrashin, cond. Philips, recorded 1961
Krystian Zimerman, piano; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, cond. DG, recorded April 1987
Alfred Brendel, piano; Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Michael Gielen, cond. Vox, recorded 1975