Liszt: Piano Concertos - Alexandre & Jean-Jacques Kantorow
BIS BIS-2100 SACD
Classical - Orchestral
Liszt: Piano Concertos 1 & 2; Concerto in E minor "Malédiction", S. 121
Alexandre Kantorow (piano)
Jean-Jacques Kantorow (conductor)
As a teenager, Franz Liszt created at least two virtuosic concertos for piano and orchestra, scores which now are lost. The three works gathered here first saw the light of day only a few years later, however, during the 1830's when Liszt’s career as a young, travelling virtuoso was at its height. The two numbered concertos, which Liszt revised extensively before letting them be published some 25 years after their conception, frame the single-movement Malédiction for piano and strings which Liszt composed in 1833 and revised in 1840, but which was never published in his lifetime.
Stepping into Liszt's shoes for the present recording is Alexandre Kantorow, another very young man. Born in 1997, Alexandre is here supported by his father Jean-Jacques Kantorow conducting the Tapiola Sinfonietta, a team with a number of highly acclaimed recordings to their credit. The recording is Alexandre’s first for BIS, as well as being his début concerto disc, and represents a remarkable achievement by a hugely promising talent, as well as being a vibrant and exciting account of three impassioned scores.
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Review by Mark Novak - September 2, 2015
This began as a review of BIS-2100 which features the young pianist Alexandre Kantorow with the Tapiola Sinfonietta conducted by his father, Jean-Jacques Kantorow. However, we have a somewhat unique situation with BIS having released an SACD of these same featured Liszt piano concertos on BIS-1530 eight years ago with Arnaldo Cohen at the keyboard with the Sao Paulo Symphony conducted by John Neschling Liszt: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2, Totentanz - Arnaldo Cohen/John Neschling. Having the former SACD in my collection and realizing that I’d never reviewed it propelled this review into a tandem review of both discs. Hence, the posting under both releases.
Let’s begin with looking at some of the objective aspects of these two SACD’s. Both feature the two widely-known Liszt piano concertos (No.1 in E-flat major, S124 and No.2 in A major, S125) but include different “fillers” – Kantorow with the Concerto for Piano and Strings, S121, known as “Malediction” while Cohen includes the Totentanz for piano and orchestra, S126. With respect to the total timings of the concertos, both players are very similar with the Concerto No.1 being nearly identical while in No.2, Kantorow is about 30 seconds longer – a minor difference in a 22 minute piece (although total timings can be misleading - see discussion below about the second concerto). Both pianists play a Steinway D. In orchestras, size does matter (snicker) and here we find the first major objective difference between these recordings – The Tapiola Sinfonietta is a chamber orchestra comprised of 41 players whereas the Sao Paulo Symphony is a standard-sized modern orchestra. And, of course, we have different conductors bringing their own ideas to the performing table and different recording venues.
From a technical standpoint, the Cohen recording’s resolution is not stated in the booklet. I presume that this is a 24-bit/44 kHz PCM master which was BIS’s standard practice at the time this recording was made (July, 2005). Kantorow’s recording was taken down in December, 2014 and is a 24-bit/96 kHz PCM master and presumably represents BIS’s current state of their recording art with piano and small orchestra. Now, onto the subjective aspects. For brevity’s sake I’ll refer to the performances as Kantorow and Cohen which in no way is meant to diminish the contributions of orchestras and conductors.
Kantorow launches into the first concerto with vigor. The balance of piano with orchestra is both closer in perspective with the piano being a bit more dominant in the sonic texture – perhaps a consequence of the smaller orchestra and/or the higher resolution of that recording. The low end of Kantorow’s piano is full and present; Cohen’s piano sound lacks a bit of that powerful low end. Both recordings capture the rest of the piano range in gorgeous fashion. In the transition between the first and second movement, Kantorow leaves little breathing room whereas Cohen leaves a bit more space, nicely anticipating the quasi adagio second movement. Here, Cohen strikes me as the more rhapsodic interpreter, caressing phrases and using careful dynamics to shape his interpretation which is very lovely. Kantorow tends to emphasize the dynamics of the adagio movement more which gives an added level of excitement to the music. Cohen’s handling of the trills near the end of the movement is masterful. Both pianists are superb in the third movement allegretto vivace. In the finale, Cohen seems to be at the edge of his technique, making for an exciting conclusion. Kantorow, on the other hand, takes this music at an even faster clip, showing no signs of finger fatigue. The triangle in this movement sounds more prominent and bell-like than in Cohen’s recording – again, perhaps small versus big orchestra at work in combination with higher recording resolution. So, who wins round one? I give the slight edge to Kantorow in the first concerto.
The second concerto is in one movement, with eight distinct tempo markings. Both performances provide six tracks. Here, it is Kantorow who delivers the more rhapsodic first section requiring nearly 30 seconds more time in a nominally 7 minute section. But don’t think for one second that this means Kantorow is in any way boring – quite the opposite, he is able to sustain his tempo quite well and injects plenty of vigor into the closing pages. Cohen’s opening section of Concerto Two is equally magical, his slightly quicker tempo maintaining a flow that sustains interest. This flow continues into the next section (marked Tempo del andante – Allegro moderato) where he plays with conviction and the support from the Sao Paulo orchestra and John Neschling is altogether superb. Kantorow is more rhapsodic again in this second section, requiring 30 seconds more time in a nominal 6 minute section. It is all very heartfelt and beautifully rendered. There is little to choose between these two pianists in the closing sections of this concerto. Tempos are nearly identical and both close out with maximal excitement. Round two is a tough one but I’d give the palm to Kantorow again, edging out Cohen with his thoughtful, rhapsodic way in the opening sections.
For the fillers, I really love Liszt’s Totentanz and its variations on the Dies Irae tune (yes, the one that Rachmaninov seemed infatuated with). Kantorow’s inclusion of “Malediction” for piano and orchestra is well played but the work can’t hold a candle to Cohen’s rendition of Totentanz, which is everything you’d expect from this piece – bold, exciting, even sinister, with a satisfying whiplash conclusion. The verdict for the “filler” – Cohen by a wide margin.
And in Conclusion…
I’ve focused mainly on the performances above but the sonics are an important part of the decision process here. I’ve mentioned several times that the Kantorow recording sounds a bit closer and the balance between piano and orchestra gives slight favor to the pianist. It is also recorded at a slightly higher level than the Cohen recording (I was constantly compensating for the average volume difference as I compared the performances to try to keep them on the same sonic footing). There is little doubt in my mind that the Kantorow recording is superior. It possesses a clarity, tonal palette and dynamic range that exceeds the now ten-year-old Cohen recording. The bass notes of Kantorow’s Steinway are refulgent and deep just as the real thing sounds. In the sound department, I give the palm to the Kantorow recording.
In conclusion, if I had to choose just one of these two well-performed and recorded SACD’s, I would opt for the new Kantorow disc. Fortunately, I don’t have to choose as both are in my collection and both have their attractions and merits. You really can’t go wrong with either - or both!
Copyright © 2015 Mark Novak and HRAudio.net