A bit of back-story: in January 1985, Earl Wild recorded three Liszt collections—titled “Liszt the Poet,” “Liszt the Transcriber,” and “Liszt the Virtuoso”—that appeared on a trio of two-CD sets from Etcetera (see 10:4, 11:2, and 11:4) and that have been partially reissued, differently organized, by Ivory (see 24:5). Those recording sessions were followed by a strenuous 1986 tour that featured the same material—although, given the lengths of the CDs, a few works were dropped from the live recitals. Included on the tour were three concerts given in the relatively intimate venue at Wynard, the family estate of Lord Londonderry, recitals that were videotaped by Lord Londonderry’s friend Tony Gaw. It’s these three recitals, live and unedited, that are offered here, filled out with a series of interviews, some with visuals, some audio-only.
Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. These are not professional recordings. The video quality is poor (they’re blurry and badly in need of color correction) and the sound, plagued with distortion and occasional dropouts, is not much better. Gaw used a single, stationary camera; while there are occasional zooms to Wild’s hands, the angle of vision is not ideal: you certainly get a much better view of Wild’s fingerwork on the 1974 BBC special hosted by Robin Ray that’s included in the bonus material. More surprising, the DVDs’ presentation and design is not up to Ivory’s usual standards: there is no listing of the contents in the booklet, and there are no chapter menus on the discs themselves. In fact, Wild’s punishingly long “Liszt the Virtuoso” recital (110 minutes) is given to us without any chapter breaks at all: to access any particular work, you have to fast-forward through the entire recital, just as if you were dealing with VHS tape.
Still, what matters is the playing itself—and here, there are no grounds for complaint. As I’ve said before, Wild was entering his seventies when he launched this project; and the studio versions of this material are more sensitive, less scorching, than the Liszt recordings he made in his younger days (see, for instance, 27:1 and 28:3). These video versions have, of course, the added frisson that we expect from live performance—but in this case, it’s not simply a matter of increased voltage, for it’s just as likely to provide added depth in the more introspective music (say, the Sonetto del Petrarca 47) as it is to provide an extra jolt to the more extroverted numbers (listen, for instance, to the torrid reading of La campanella). High points? Each time I hear it, I’m more impressed by Wild’s uncompromising Beethoven First, notable for its dramatic subito dynamics, its extraordinary attention to texture, and its tremendous momentum. Except perhaps for Gould’s recording of the Fifth, this (and Wild’s studio equivalent) is arguably the best recording of any of Liszt’s Beethoven symphony transcriptions ever made. I was also dazzled by Wild’s sparkling dance through the Spinning Chorus from the Flying Dutchman, which nimbly skirts the sense of strain that mars most accounts of this music—just as his richly articulated Dante Sonata sidesteps the doggedness that one might reasonably have thought endemic to the music. For sheer virtuosity, I’d recommend his finely articulated Gnomenreigen and his tough-minded Polonaise No. 2; for sheer concentration, his Sonata; for ecstatic fluency, his Un sospiro; and for paradoxically searing playfulness, his magnificent Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. But what most impresses in the end is less the quality of individual performances than the sheer authority of the three recitals as a whole—the sympathy for the full range of Liszt’s imagination, from the slushiest outpourings to the most massive monuments to the most forward-looking experiments. This is, quite simply, Liszt-playing of the highest caliber.
Besides the recitals and the three encores—none by Liszt—the set includes, as I’ve said, a number of interviews, some of which involve extended performances. The best of these bonuses are the 2003 Mannes interview with Donald Manildi and that 1974 BBC production—but they all reveal Wild’s inimitable combination of charm, irreverence, generosity, and stinging wit, all fueled by his insatiable passion for music. Strongly recommended.