Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Returning to an Old Friend

One of the most painful decisions I had to make in our "downsizing" move from a house in Palo Alto to a condominium unit in San Francisco involved giving up a sizable collection of vinyl recordings and the turntable for playing them.  Once it was clear that there would not be a good place for the turntable, the sacrifice of the vinyls became an unfortunate corollary.  There are a few losses that I occasionally regret, particularly in the domain of early music;  but, for the most part, I have managed to find the CDs to make up for the vinyl losses on an "on demand" basis.

The most recent compensation has been of the Deutsche Grammophon complete recording of Franz Liszt's Annés de Pèlerinage.  While my interest in Liszt tends to be about as variable as the repertoire of his compositions, I have to accept the fact that he has a lot of enthusiastic supporters here in San Francisco.  Thus, if I am going to write fairly about performances by those supporters, I should keep myself well informed on the repertoire and try to do so through recordings by performers I know and respect.

The Deutsche Grammophon recording was made by Lazar Berman in 1977.  Both my wife and I had been following Berman's performances before we met, and we saw him together at one of his Carnegie Hall recitals.  However, neither of us encountered much awareness of him in the United States outside New York.  Nevertheless, among the pianists I have heard perform, he made a deep impression on me for an approach to Liszt that could tap into the virtuosity and the broad spectrum of emotions without compromising the technical discipline that established a clear sense of control, rather than wild abandon.

I suppose the occasion that triggered my decision to recover Berman's complete Années de Pèrelinage set was last week's student piano recital at the San Francisco Conservatory, at which one of the students took on Liszt's "fantasia quasi sonata," "Après une Lecture de Dante," from the “second year” of this collection.  In terms of clock time, this is the most massive composition in the entire set;  and, while it is based on only two subjects (as I observed in my Examiner.com account), it would be fair to say that Liszt milks each of those subjects to death (an appropriate metaphor given the inspiration from Dante's extended meditation on the afterlife).  I still have problems getting my own head around the excesses of this piece, which I take as a sign that my listening experiences need to be reinforced.  It thus seemed natural that I turn to Berman for that reinforcement, and I have to say that I am delighted to have him back in my personal collection of recordings.

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