The single Piano Sonata written by the legendarily greatest pianist in history is inevitably going to occupy a special place in the canon. Every pianist wants to demonstrate their mastery and stamina, and if they can manage it, their distinctiveness in realising this Everest of a score—some even succeed, such as Yuja Wang on her début CD (DG 4778140), or Kathia Buniatishvili (88697766042). Added to which, it is the 200th anniversary of Liszt’s birth this year, and also the year that Leslie Howard’s exhaustively complete Liszt piano music collection was issued as a box set (CDS4450198). No surprise then, that two of the greatest living pianists, Marc-André Hamelin and Garrick Ohlsson, should have both chosen to issue new recordings of the Sonata in the last few months. Interestingly, both have chosen to pair the work with a piano transcription of one of Liszt’s hair-raising organ works (another instrument on which he was brilliant performer), Hamelin the twelve-minute Fantasie and Fugue on BACH in Liszt’s own version, and Ohlsson Busoni’s technique-testing Ad nos, ad salutarem undam transcription. Incidentally, despite appearances, this is not a church chorale, but an “Anabaptist Chorale” from Meyerbeer’s religious opera le Prophète. Both CDs open with the respective transcriptions, and one is immediately aware that these are master-pianists—whereas Ohlsson’s Ad nos manages to exhibit both grandeur and a suggestion of spontaneity, Hamelin’s take on the BACH Fantasy is edgy and tense, exciting and yet meticulous, giving it a guerrilla compactness that makes the listener feel like immediately hitting the ‘repeat’ button. Both players have such amazing technique that the outrageous difficulty of these works are scarcely apparent—I experienced real goose-bumps when they suddenly cut loose, particularly in Hamelin’s BACH.
In Hamelin’s Hyperion CD Kenneth Hamilton’s liner notes characterise the Sonata as being among the first works in which Liszt staked his claim to be more than just “a pianist of genius who persisted … in the bizarre delusion that he was also a great composer”. Hamilton goes on to observe that many who first heard it were unconvinced by the work, including Clara Schumann. Today we are so familiar with it that we forget what a radical departure the Sonata represented when first written; there are innovations in the works of Alkan, Chopin or Schumann, but little so sure-footed and bold as Liszt’s single-movement scheme. This aspect of the work’s modernity is precisely exemplified in the difference between Hamelin’s and Ohlsson’s performances. Hamelin approaches the work with an almost post-modern lucidity: his reading, brooding and lyrical where necessary, nonetheless eschews much of the baggage of late-nineteenth century tradition, resulting in a reading that avoids theatricality. His playing is quite full-blooded enough to compensate for the absence of high romantic rhetoric, and I enjoyed it greatly. Ohlsson, by contrast, adopts a relatively conventional approach, with a fair amount of excitement-inducing rubato, and ritardandi at climactic moments; his richly romantic, superlative execution made this a glorious listening experience.
The Hyperion release, at 79’25”, offers fully eighteen minutes more music than the Bridge CD. Hamelin sandwiches the huge, mellow, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude from the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses and—a welcome contrast—the picture-postcardy Venezia e Napoli from the second volume of Années de Pélerinages between the abstractions of the BACH Fantasy and the Sonata. Both are lovely works and significantly add to the disc’s attractiveness.
The recorded sound on the two CDs could not be more different, either. Hamelin on Hyperion is given a crisp, analytic sonority which well suits his utterly modern pianism, whereas Ohlsson on Bridge basks in a romantic and beautifully-judged ambiance—it really emphasises his masterly and subtle use of the pedal—and his CD sound is more forward. The difficulty I have is that I very much liked both CDs—I really cannot recommend one over the other. Extravagant it may be, but best buy both and enjoy the contrast…