It was, I suppose inevitable, that the Liszt anniversary year would see a plethora of new recordings and reissues of his piano music, but I must admit to not foreseeing quite how many. I have listened to, and in some cases reviewed, probably a dozen recordings of the Piano Sonata in the last six months, including those of Alfred Brendel, Marc-André Hamelin, Garrick Ohlsson, Kathia Buniatashvili, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard—all of them excellent, meritorious, renditions that I am pleased to recommend. But this reissue of the astonishing Kristian Zimerman’s complete Liszt recordings for Deutsche Grammophon is another thing entirely. Other recordings of Zimerman’s had already caught my ear, including his benchmark Ravel Concertos with Boulez, until the recent Bavouzet set on Chandos my preferred versions. It is not simple trying to pinpoint what makes his performance of the Liszt Sonata so outstanding; it is more than simply his magisterial command of the keyboard, or the precise and exacting weight he accords each key-depression—all the other top pianists have that. It is, I suspect, in the final analysis, his very personal reading of the piece’s meaning, neither as highly romanticised as Ohlsson, nor as analytically probing as Hamelin, but psychologically profounder than both—Zimerman gives us Liszt as demiurge. When one talks about an intelligent performance in classical music, this is what one means. And if it could be described it would be nowhere near as remarkable. I think Zimerman is probably one of the greatest pianists of recent years.
The solo CD in this double-CD set is completed with impeccable performances of Nuages Gris, la Notte, and la Lugubre Gondola II, but in the final performance of the disc Zimerman gives us a simply unequalled reading of Funerailles as the most poignant cri-de-coeur: his opening martellato passing-bell octaves pierce one’s heart and he catches the melancholy in the plangent melody like no other pianist. Even his thunderous Chopinesque left-hand finale is entirely devoid of grandiloquence—it has the effect of distantly recalled martial music. Zimerman’s performance made me think of the desolation of Alkan’s le Tambour bat au Champs.
The other CD is given over to Zimerman’s commanding renditions of the two Liszt Piano Concertos and the concertante Totentanz. There is more than a touch of Faust about the recording of the First Concerto with its chromatic main theme; Zimerman succeeds in making the unfolding music both muscular and sensitive. His collaborator Seiji Ozawa, conducting the Boston Symphony, is admirably complicit in the sheer extraordinariness of this performance—the orchestral playing, especially the solo violinist near the opening, is exemplary. The concerto, so often the medium for an exercise in tub-thumping braggadoccia, is revealed here as having hidden depths, even an ironic subtlety. Again, in the Second Concerto, one of Liszt’s most eccentric works, Zimerman and Ozawa convey the prevailing sense of unease and agitation with a rare level of conviction; their reading of the Military March Third movement is marvellously grotesque. The closing work, the Dies Irae-driven Totentanz manages, in Zimerman’s hands, to be both a gleeful danse macabre, and a thoughtful and intelligent exercise in variation form. The only thing letting this disc down a little is the altissimo register of the piano which is occasionally a touch wooden.
These are not just excellent recordings of the normal round of releases. Zimerman will one day be spoken of as we speak of Katchen or Kapell. This is a superlative CD. Buy it.