Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonata in b. Fantasy and Fugue on
Ad Nos, Ad Salutarem Undam
Garrick Ohlsson (pn )
BRIDGE 9337 (61:20)
Having completed his Beethoven cycle, Garrick Ohlsson turns his attention to Liszt. I suppose it’s
for pianists—many of them, anyway—to tackle Liszt’s B-Minor Sonata at some point in their careers. Whatever its musical merits, it’s one of those works that looms large as a daunting, if not taunting,
technical challenge to be conquered, like a mountain that must be climbed, simply because it’s there. Of perhaps greater interest on this disc, however, is Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale tune
Ad Nos, Ad Salutarem Undam
, which, at almost 29 minutes, vies, in length at least, with the Sonata.
Though it is far from being underrepresented on disc, you won’t find the work listed in the composer’s solo piano category because it was originally written for organ. Liszt later arranged the piece for piano four-hands, but it’s Ferrucio Busoni’s solo piano arrangement that Ohlsson plays.
Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue takes its Latin title and borrows its melody from the Anabaptists’ chorus in act I of Meyerbeer’s opera
—“Ad nos, ad salutarem undam iterum venite miseri” (“To us, to the healing waters, come again”—i.e., come to be re-baptized, ye who are in misery). I spent a few minutes trying to learn if Meyerbeer lifted these words from some actual Biblical text, or if he came up with them all on his own; when my search yielded no reliable results after two or three tries, I tired of the exercise and decided it wasn’t particularly relevant anyway. What I found more interesting was a Kimmel Center program note I came across, written, I surmise, by organist Wayne Marshall, stating that the actual melody Meyerbeer used to set this Latin hymn was based on a traditional Jewish chant the composer knew from his childhood. The Anabaptists being a grim and cheerless lot who frowned on earthly delights, I can’t help but wonder if Meyerbeer wasn’t mocking them.
Liszt wrote the Fantasy and Fugue in 1850 while in Weimar. Formally, the work is in three movements—Fantasy, Adagio, and Fugue—but structured in such a way that each movement functions as one of the sections—exposition, development, and recapitulation—of a sonata-allegro design. Combined into this are also elements of cyclic form, as material previously heard reappears in transmuted guise.
Truth to tell, this is my first encounter with the Fantasy as a piece for solo piano, my only other piano recording of it being the one on Volume 17 of Howard Shelley’s complete Liszt collection in which he’s joined by Geoffrey Parsons in the composer’s four-hand arrangement. I notice though that Adrian Corleonis has reviewed two recordings of this Busoni solo piano arrangement, one, none too positively, by Hamish Milne in
32:3 on a Hyperion CD that appears to have since been withdrawn from print, and another, more recently and more favorably in 33:4, by Holger Groschopp on a four-CD set. All other reviews of the piece in the
Archive appear to be of Liszt’s original organ version.
Ohlsson’s performance bowls me over. A couple of other Liszt recitals I’ve reviewed in recent issues have done much to enhance my appreciation of a composer whose music had not previously held much appeal for me. Add to them this Ohlsson recital and, while I may still not be quite ready to take Holy Orders, as Liszt was, my faith has been strengthened. I gather from reading Corleonis’s reviews that Busoni didn’t mess around too much with Liszt’s original version of the piece and that the arrangement is a fairly straightforward one. The music is magnificent and Ohsson’s playing of it is masterly. Listen to the way he brings out the sequential bass progression in the left hand underpinning the cascades of notes in the right hand beginning at 5:20 in the first movement. It’s pretty thrilling.
Liszt’s Sonata has become one of those iconic works in the literature that has taken on a legendary status perhaps larger than it deserves. Assuredly, more words have been written about it than there are notes in the score, analyzing everything from the conjectured complexities and intricacies of its formal structure to its hypothesized programmatic content. All of that aside, there are two indisputable facts about the piece: (1) It poses major technical challenges to any pianist who undertakes to play it; and (2) It wasn’t always believed to be the great work it’s considered today. It was roundly criticized by Eduard Hanslick and other critics of the day; as the story is told, while performing his Sonata at a social gathering to which Brahms had been invited, Liszt “glanced at the audience to make sure the piece was having its intended effect. When he turned his eyes to Brahms, he saw that he was fast asleep in his chair.” Considering the score’s bombast, it’s hard to imagine anyone sleeping through it, but dozing off is not infrequently a response to boredom, and this anecdote is recounted in enough sources that it’s probably true. Brahms was known for putting people down with a sharp rebuke; imagine then how even more devastating was this insult to Liszt when, to express his disapproval, Brahms felt no need to utter a single word. Snoozing said it all. Needless to say, the two men didn’t become fast friends.
Given the almost cultish reverence in which Liszt’s B-Minor Sonata is held, readers, I’m sure, are apt to have their swear-by performances. So I shall not try to persuade you that Ohlsson surpasses longtime favorites by Brendel, Arrau, Richter, and perhaps a dozen or more others. But I will tell you that Claudio Arrau was a one-time teacher of Ohlsson and if you’re familiar with Arrau’s tonal pulchritude, his deep, rich bass, and his grand, sweeping gestures—which I am from his classic 1970 Philips recording—you’ll hear a similar approach in Ohlsson’s reading, possibly even more sumptuous on his Bösendorfer Imperial Grand in this 2009 recording beautifully captured by Bridge in the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center at New York’s State University College in Purchase. Exceptional performances and recording. Highly recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Liszt's Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale "Ad nos, ad salutarem undam" from Meyerbeer's Le Prophete is one of the Romantic organ repertoire's pillars, yet the nature of its keyboard deployment easily lends itself to the piano. While Liszt himself arranged the work for piano four hands, Ferruccio Busoni's solo version more effectively communicates the organ writing's dramatic and dynamic impact in pianistic terms.
Garrick Ohlsson's recording is outstanding in every way. He conveys the opening chorale theme's "pesanto, molto tenuto" directive without undue lingering or breaking the line, and sustains his slow, flexible tempo in the subsequent lyrical "tranquillament" section by balancing and shaping the four-part counterpoint as if singers rather than strings and hammers were present. Both tonal heft and effortless sweep characterize Ohlsson's handling of the booming chords and broken octaves littering the first section's final pages.
The pianist justifies his fluid, almost alla breve tempo for the central Adagio by truly conveying the pianissimo markings that most others play louder. His formidable inner rhythm and long-lined momentum make the third section's fugue quite a powerful and riveting experience, where the music's harmonic density arguably registers with greater clarity than in faster, lighter, more superficially exciting recordings from Hamish Milne (Danacord) and Giovanni Bellucci (Assai).
Like his one-time mentor Claudio Arrau, Ohlsson not only projects the Liszt B minor sonata's grand, theatrical rhetoric full-out, but does so with the utmost conviction and the least vulgarity. As a result, his rhythmic distortions (such as in the fughetta's opening) are specifically characterized and astutely timed. Ohlsson builds his sound world from the bottom up, bringing bass lines and inner counterpoints to the fore in the exposition and in the Andante sostenuto's climax. Likewise, the motivic repeated chords in the final octave peroration also get uncommon due. My only half-quibble concerns fleeting moments where certain notes on Ohlsson's Bösendorfer Imperial Grand slip ever so slightly out-of-tune. In any event, it's great to have the Ad Nos Fantasy and B minor sonata programmed together. If you like Liszt playing that's big, thoughtful, mature, intelligently virtuosic, and thoroughly engaging, buy this disc.
--Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Sonata for Piano in B minor, S 178 by Franz Liszt
Garrick Ohlsson (Piano)
Written: 1852-1853; Weimar, Germany
Date of Recording: 04/2009
Venue: Recital Hall of the Conservatory of Musi
Length: 32 Minutes 26 Secs.
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