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Liszt: 2 Piano Concertos - Cohen, Neschling

Liszt: 2 Piano Concertos - Cohen, Neschling

BIS  BIS-SACD-1530

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Franz Liszt: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2, Totentanz

Arnaldo Cohen (piano)
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra
John Neschling (conductor)

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PCM recording

Recorded in July 2005 at the Sala São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil, 24/44,1

Recording producer and digital editing: Uli Schneider

Sound engineer: Thore Brinkmann (recording); Uli Schneider (mixing)

Equipment: Neumann microphones; Stagetec Truematch microphone preamplifier and high resolution A/D converter; MADI optical cabling; Yamaha 02R96 digital mixer; Sequoia Workstation; Pyramix DSD Workstation (SACD); B&W Nautilus 802 loudspeakers; STAX headphones

Executive producer: Robert Suff
Reviews (2)
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Review by John Miller - December 5, 2012

On this very welcome spillover from 2011's Liszt Year, pianist, conductor and orchestra all hail from Brazil. They generate a level of communication and musical understanding which culminates in remarkable performances of Liszt's two piano concertos and Totentanz.

Arnaldo Cohen is hardly a household name, but he has performed with most of the world's great conductors and orchestras in most prestigious venues. His "quiet" career probably results from his academic teaching posts; presently he is professor at the music school of Indiana University. Recently, his discography indicates that he is becoming a Liszt specialist, and the present disc provides abundant evidence of that.

Liszt's two piano concertos were experiments in a new approach, not only to the structure and purpose of concertos, but also radically changing the development section of the conventional first movement or sonata form. He proposed to make the development of one or several initial themes take place in each movement, i.e. throughout the work - essentially a Romantic metamorphosis of the Classical concerto form. He called this "cyclical" development, and later used it in many other of his pieces. Many composers of his time utilised this form, and it is still of use in modern times.

The First Concerto in E flat major had a long gestation (1839-1846) which belies its experimental origins even in final form. Liszt's romanticising of the concerto included a tendency to merge the conventional three or four movements into a single movement, and also place strongly contrasting material in subsections. A good example of this is the first few pages of the First Concerto, where a muscular first subject theme is suddenly interrupted by a quiet, sweet and gentle piano solo 'a piachere' which for all the world sounds like a Chopin Nocturne. The pianist continues this several times, between which the strings quietly insist on the original muscular theme. The problem is that the movement, after only a few pages, completely looses momentum, and has to grab it back again somehow after a new section begins, usually prefaced by a virtuosic piano cadenza. This is the reason why I have never been really convinced by the E flat concerto, much as I respect its importance in musical history. Much of the problem was probably caused by the work's origins as a Fantasy rather than a concerto.

Cohen's and Neschling's way of dealing with the many stops and starts, sharp changes in contrast and other 'experimental' features is not to linger over the sudden changes in tempo, but to smooth them out, to some degree. Cohen's 'a piachere' or 'play at your pleasure' is to keep the solos, especially the many cadenzas, as close to the previous tempo as possible, without lingering display on the part of the pianist. Neschling relies on the Sao Paulo Symphony's ability to turn on a sixpence and immediately settle into new material. All this works very well, and the performers' musical intelligence presents a much less jerky, more exciting and less puzzling E flat concerto. It certainly (almost) had me convinced for once, and it also lacked the bombast and over-affected playing so often heard.

The gentler, more overtly lyrical Concerto No. 2 in A also had a long gestation, starting in 1849 at the same time as the First Concerto but not settling in final form until 1856. Its cyclic form and compression of movements is more adroitly carried out by Liszt, who was gradually learning the difficulties in making his proposed changes to concerto form. It is given a truly lovely reading by Cohen, with strength, attack and formidable virtuosity when required, and much pure poetry in Liszt's dalliance. The OSESP follow with stirring support, bringing a wealth of orchestral colour to this near-masterpiece. Alfred Brendel always insisted that the A major concerto was the greates of the concerted works.

Totentanz, in its version for piano and orchestra, is programmed first on this BIS disc. Both Cohen and Neschling take note that it is a dance, not a tone-poem, and this is their rhythmic underpinning of Liszt's set of variations on the age-old Dies Irae theme. Using a slightly brittle tone in the dissonant chords at the bottom end of the Steinway's compass to overcome the fuzzy long decay tone of the instrument, Cohen thus nearly makes the sound that Liszt would have heard on his earlier model of piano. (You can hear the deep bass of an early piano on the version of Totentanze by Anima Eterna (RBCD)). The Sao Paulo effort results in a stunning performance from all. Chilling at first, the dance rhythms of the Brazillian team soon overcome the morbid presence of Death in the pure excitement of Liszt's dazzling variations. A brilliant performance!

BIS engineers provide a broad and deep representation of the OSESP in its concert hall, with the piano ideally balanced, not hardening tonally in the many tutti or solo FFF passages. The infamous triangle in the E flat major Concerto is given a normal concert hall presence without spotlighting, and the overall naturalness of the sound is first class.

Altogether, this is a remarkable performance of Liszt's three concertante works with piano. Cohen's poetic lyricism and fearless bravado in roulades and double octave storms is not put to shame by comparisons with the great performances such as those of Argerich, Zimermann & Howard. The warm, richly detailed recording provides a perfect platform for a disc which deserves the widest exposure. Strongly recommended.

Copyright © 2012 John Miller and HRAudio.net

Review by Mark Novak - September 2, 2015

This began as a review of BIS-2100 Liszt: 2 Piano Concertos - Kantorow, Kantorow 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. 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.

First Concerto

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.

Second 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.

The Fillers

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

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Sonics (Stereo):

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