Liszt
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses
Steven Osborne (piano)

Recorded 28-30 December 2002 in Henry Wood Hall, London
CD No: HYPERION CDA67445
(2 CDs selling as one)
Duration: 84 minutes
Reviewed: January 2005
These ten pieces were composed between 1845 and 1852 at a time when Liszt was refining the first book of the Année de Pélèrinage and commencing work on the B minor Sonata, and only Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (No. 3), Pensée des morts (No.4) and Funérailles (No.7) have gained a regular place in the repertoire. Complete recordings are few and far between, and I have chosen to compare Steven Osborne with Aldo Ciccolini (recorded in 1968 on French HMV 1968) who this year, 2005, celebrates his 80th-birthday. I will also, in passing, be comparing both of them with Brendel and Horowitz.
If we take the best-known pieces first, it is apparent that Osborne favours slow tempos, a comparatively straightforward cantabile line, liberal use of the sustaining pedal, and a consistently sweet tone. In the Bénédiction these qualities give the music-making a sense of quiet purposeful power leading to calm fulfilment in the coda. However, in both Pensée and Funérailles, Osborne’s tempos are too slow to articulate morbid introspection in the first and a sense of dislocated grief in the second. The huge, hammered eight-part bass chords at the climax of Pensée and the stark fff restatement of the march theme after the octave climax to Funérailles are also too soft in Osborne’s hands. Ciccolini, though is too fast in the Bénédiction and the opening of Funérailles, but everywhere else his pacing and phrasing are more varied and natural. Turn to Brendel (Philips, 1977) in the Bénédiction and Pensée and you enter into a different world, here every mood is effortlessly conveyed via an exceptionally wide tonal palette, moulded phrasing and a greater macro and micro dynamic range. And, in Funérailles, Horowitz (1950, now on BMG) conveys a sense of mounting grief and desolation at a true funeral-march pace and the octave climax is a perfect example of a superhuman (jaw-dropping would be a better term!) technique used for interpretative ends.
Moving to the less familiar pieces, the opening Invocation is a magnificent hymn with a typical Lisztian five-note marcato and grandioso theme for its second subject. Osborne creates a sense of implacable forward movement relaxing only for the pp impressionistic intervals and his playing of the recurring left-hand chords is dark and sonorous. Nevertheless at a slightly slower tempo Ciccolini better conveys the hymn-like quality of the music and the bass chords are more varied in tone. Ave Maria – the first of four transcriptions of vocal music – is a moderato of no great distinction, which Osborne and Ciccolini both play with directness and simplicity.
The next transcription, Pater noster (No.5), finds Osborne’s playing more sensitive than Ciccolini’s in terms of dynamics and touch. In the Hymne de l’Enfant à son réveil, the basic marking is Poco allegretto and Osborne is again slow, but maintains a gently beguiling cantabile line, while Ciccolini takes a more extrovert operatic approach – but both are totally convincing.
All of the three final pieces contain memorable music. The short Miserere d’après Palestrina is a contemplative work whose spare harmonies are a typical 19th-century composer’s approximation to renaissance style. Andante lagrimoso is a beautifully subdued study in chromaticism, and Cantique d’amour a reverie imbued with a quiet sense of hope. Osborne plays all three superbly, with crystalline textures and a sense of line and song, but in the Andante lagrimoso his tempo is again slightly too measured, Ciccolini is more volatile and pianistic, yet equally compelling.
So two very different ways of playing Liszt. If pushed I would choose Osborne for his greater sense of spirituality, but neither is ideal. Listening to Brendel in the Bénédiction and Pensée, his rubato, slight tempo fluctuations, pauses, more varied phrasing and much wider tonal palette allow him to capture every emotional facet of the music: it is the difference between very good and great piano-playing and interpretation.
Osborne isn’t helped by the sound quality; there are some ppp passages which at low and medium volume levels are virtually inaudible. In the early days of CDs this was often a problem and it is disappointing to find that contemporary digital recordings are still creating these unrealistic dynamic levels. The treble is very clear but tubular and lacks true resonance – but that can be said of any digital recording. I used first-generation LPs for all of my Brendel and Ciccolini comparisons and the bloom, presence and instrumental timbre of the stereo LPs easily surpass this CD.

 

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