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Brahms & Liszt / Grace Francis

Release Date: 09/14/2010 
Label:  Quartz Records   Catalog #: 2071   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Johannes BrahmsFranz Liszt
Performer:  Grace Francis
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 16 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRAHMS Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Book 2. Piano Sonata No. 1 in C. LISZT Funérailles. Ave Maria. Sonetto 104 del Petrarca. Tarantella Grace Francis (pn) QUARTZ 2071 (76:22)

From her booklet photograph, Grace Francis appears to be a slight-framed, self-effacing, rather bookish young lady, an image completely out of character with who she Read more turns into when she sits down at the piano. She has chosen a program of works for this, her debut album, that would strike fear into the heart of a David facing Goliath. These are big works, requiring a pianist not just of great digital dexterity but of real muscle, and Francis arm-wrestles the giant to at least a draw if not an outright win.

She was born in East London and attended the Yehudi Menuhin School before studying with Irina Zaritskaya at the Royal College of Music. There she was awarded the Chappell Gold Medal, the highest award for a pianist. Subsequently she won a Wingate scholarship to continue her studies with Martino Tirimo. Francis has made broadcasts for BBC Radio 3 of works including Bartók’s Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12.

Brahms’s Paganini Variations were completed in 1863 when he was 30. They display his great mastery of variations, but they were also designed to pay tribute to their namesake’s legendary diabolical technique. Clara Schumann dubbed them Hexen Variationen , and either wouldn’t or wasn’t up to playing them in public herself. They are wickedly difficult; that Francis plays them accurately and with as much aplomb as she does is a remarkable achievement. What I do find just a bit lacking in her performance is the sheer muscle power brought to them by pianists like Arrau, Thibaudet, Lilya Zilberstein, and of course Earl Wild. A few more hours in the gym lifting weights and Francis will be able to join this illustrious company.

Compared to other earlier-developing musical prodigies, Brahms, at 20, was barely out of diapers when he published his op. 1 C-Major Piano Sonata in 1853. If anything, the sonata is even more taxing than the Paganini Variations for its length and emotional range. There have been fine recordings of it over the years by Julius Katchen, Sviatoslav Richter, and more recently a fine account by Hardy Rittner, which impressed me in Fanfare 32:5, but Francis holds her own against them and delivers the goods in a powerful and strongly focused reading.

Funérailles and the Ave Maria are numbers 7 and 2, respectively, from Liszt’s cycle of 10 piano pieces titled Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. Funérailles , which Liszt wrote in response to the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, is the most popular of the pieces. It was a favorite of Horowitz; and Rubinstein, Richter, and dozens of other heavy-hitter keyboard virtuosos performed and recorded it. Francis does well by it, but as in the Paganini Variations, I sense a bit of a loss of heft as the piece works up its head of steam. With the Ave Maria we finally get a respite from the thunder and drums.

Just as Funérailles and the Ave Maria come from a larger collection of pieces, the Sonetto 104 del Petrarca is the fifth number from Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage II: Italie , composed between 1839 and 1846. Thirteen years later, in 1859, he supplemented the original seven numbers with three more under the heading of Venezi e Napoli . The Tarentella is the third of those added numbers. It’s one of those virtuoso display pieces designed to knock the audience dead, if it doesn’t knock the pianist dead first. No fatalities occur during Francis’s performance.

This is quite an extraordinary debut disc. As they say, you can’t tell a book by its cover, and from her photo, you would never guess what a dynamo Francis can be at the keyboard. Recommended to anyone who enjoys piano music in the grand romantic tradition played by an artist with grits and real flair.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Variations (28) for Piano on a theme by Paganini, Op. 35 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Grace Francis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1862-1863; Austria 
Date of Recording: 09/2008 
Venue:  Potton Hall 
Length: 11 Minutes 24 Secs. 
Sonata for Piano no 1 in C major, Op. 1 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Grace Francis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1852-1853; Germany 
Date of Recording: 09/2008 
Venue:  Potton Hall 
Length: 28 Minutes 51 Secs. 
Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses, S 173: no 7, Funérailles by Franz Liszt
Performer:  Grace Francis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1845-1852; Weimar, Germany 
Date of Recording: 09/2008 
Venue:  Potton Hall 
Length: 12 Minutes 8 Secs. 
Ave Maria for Piano in D major, S 504/1 by Franz Liszt
Performer:  Grace Francis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1869 
Date of Recording: 09/2008 
Venue:  Potton Hall 
Length: 6 Minutes 24 Secs. 
Années de pèlerinage, deuxième année, S 161 "Italie": no 5, Sonetto 104 del Petrarca by Franz Liszt
Performer:  Grace Francis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1837-1849; Weimar, Germany 
Date of Recording: 09/2008 
Venue:  Potton Hall 
Length: 7 Minutes 9 Secs. 
Venezia e Napoli, S 162: no 3, Tarantella by Franz Liszt
Performer:  Grace Francis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1859; Weimar, Germany 
Date of Recording: 09/2008 
Venue:  Potton Hall 
Length: 9 Minutes 40 Secs. 

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