Tzimon Barto: Paganini Variations, Paganini Rhapsody
All six Grandes Etudes de Paganini are a comparative rarity on disc. Gary Graffman’s 1959 traversal (Sony, 4/65) is brilliantly executed, lightly pedalled and closely recorded but Barto’s is the best modern recording. Though not above discreetly adding the odd octave and arpeggiated chord, he is acutely observant of Liszt’s directions while bringing his own distinctive voice to the music. Try, for instance, the opening pages of ‘La campanella’, played here much slower than normal, pp and with pedal producing a wonderful bell-like effect. I don’t think his extreme rallentando in Var 10 of the famous A minor study quite works but that is a small quibble.
Liszt’s final study leads into the two books of Brahms’s variations on the same theme. These and the Lutosawski Paganini Variations (in which Barto plays both piano parts) amount to over 37 minutes of music almost exclusively in the key of A minor. It says something for Barto’s touch and imaginative colouring that this never obtrudes. His is a distinguished account of the Brahms (the booklet helpfully grants a separate track to each variation) with a notably languid Var 4 from Book 2 producing an unexpectedly touching effect.
The second disc has just one item, Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody (as it’s inaccurately referred to in the track listing), lasting 26'01". This is exactly four minutes slower than the composer, due in part to the 18th Variation – one of the slowest (3'47") yet most intense on disc. Throughout, you’ll notice a wealth of orchestral detail under Eschenbach’s direction in an empathetic partnership that brings an ethereal atmosphere to Var 11 and a truly scintillating verve and precision to the final six variations.