From being crowned BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014, Martin James Bartlett now starts his discography. Love and Death is Bartlett’s concept, his introductory written note quoting from Oscar Wilde: “The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death” – and the pianist goes on to reveal that the Schumann/Liszt ‘Widmung’ – here a song without a singer, for Liszt’s Liebeslied (S566a) is taken from Schumann’s Myrthen cycle, Opus 25 – kick-started the project. That haunting melody occupies track seven, a shapely and communicative account, nicely modulated, further evidence that Bartlett is a discriminating musician, if also not afraid to enjoy Lisztian flourishes and fortissimos.
Liszt is a much-credited author in this anthology, including his perfumed and lyrical response to Three Petrarch Sonnets (from the Italian leg of Years of Pilgrimage, S161) – richly encompassed by Bartlett, sonorous, mystical, rapt, sometimes restless if mostly contemplative – and love in different forms is represented, whether ill-fated, such as Liszt’s luxurious adaptation of ‘Isolde’s Liebestod’ (S447) from Wagner’s Tristan (dissonant stabs to the heart for starters), or the seductive simplicity of Liebestraum No.3 (from S298), a tender-becoming-ardour-filled (and tunefully familiar) billet-doux that Bartlett plays with wooing candour.
There is spiritual love, too, twice highlighted from J. S. Bach, whether Busoni’s transcription of ‘Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ’ (BWV177) or Myra Hess’s of ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ (from Cantata 147) – both sublime as music, and altogether special through Bartlett’s depth of reaction to these transporting wonders; maybe the (old-fashioned) left-hand before right expressive ‘device’ is an integral part of these arrangements; whatever, when things get tough I’ll be turning to these tracks for solace. Back to Earth for a substantial slab from Granados’s Goya-inspired collection, Goyescas (Opus 11, completed in 1910) – ‘El Amor y la muerte (Balada)’ needs no translation, and the music is graphic anyway, rhetorical and bittersweet, suitably painterly, ambitious in design.
A first glance at this issue’s contents questions the inclusion of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata #7 (B-flat, 1942, Opus 73), until one remembers it is the central panel of his ‘War Sonata’ trilogy, and War invariably means Death (for troops and innocents alike, sometimes on a bewildering scale of loss). Love? Well, Sviatoslav Richter, who premiered the Sonata in 1943 (World War Two raging) said, despite the atrocities happening at the time: “We continue to feel and love. ... ...we find the strength to affirm the irrepressible life-force.” Yet, for all Bartlett’s musicality and technical command, he is somewhat outside of the aggression, sentiment and sleep-with-one-eye-open threat this music can yield; there is not enough danger or isolation, both states explored/juxtaposed in the first movement. That said, the beginning of the from-Schumann Andante caloroso (warm) is lovingly shaped and without affectation; yet while one appreciates Bartlett’s bravura with and control of the final Precipitato – easy to let it run away or leave nothing for the end – it isn’t quite the maelstrom it can be, and the closing few measures need to be that bit more chiselled and of greater evenness between the hands; it’s only about a few (albeit crucial) degrees, for there is much to admire otherwise. If I was doubting my opinion ... as a postscript, there’s a Richter account of this Sonata on YouTube (undated, unspecified in any way) that white-heatedly embraces those particular aspects I didn't quite get from Bartlett.
The recorded sound is first-class – immediate, tonally faithful and sporting a wide dynamic range, and gratifyingly with little sense of church space/reverb – and equally excellent, allowing that words play their part in some of the music here if silently, is that these texts are included in the booklet, very helpful, not least to appreciate Liszt’s response to Petrarch’s picturesque prose. And, despite the lack of timings in the documentation, well-done to Warner Classics for this rush-release and for signing Bartlett in the first place.