LISZT Hungarian Rhapsodies (Complete)
In 1968 Alfred Brendel shrewdly observed of Liszt’s Rhapsodies, ‘these are the pieces we perhaps have the most to make restitution to’. Nearly 50 years later, that remains a debt still largely unpaid, despite many worthy attempts. However, this complete set comes very close to settling accounts. The 31-year-old Italian pianist Vincenzo Maltempo has already created a niche for himself with a series of Alkan recordings (on Piano Classics and Toccata Classics), not to mention a 2008 Liszt disc (Gramola) that includes, among other things, a Norma Fantasy of extraordinary breadth and nobility. In fact those two qualities also permeate these Hungarian Rhapsodies, which I don’t hesitate to call the finest I’ve heard.
One of the more striking aspects of Maltempo’s approach to these works is his inerrant sense of timing. There’s no rush to arrival: every scintillating detail is savoured at leisure, without a trace of decadent indulgence. Lyrical passages, so often sunk by the weight of misplaced rubato, here speak with an earnest ardour, lending them a disarming, youthful freshness. That said, tempos are amply pliant and rubato, when applied, is richly luxuriant. The rhythmic spine of the material always remains intact, so that rhetorical thrust is never lost to detail. Finally, Maltempo’s presto leggiero in fioritura passages is little short of perfection.
The scrupulously observed dotted semiquaver/demisemiquaver figures in Rhapsody No 5, the ‘Heroïde élégiaque’, fix its funereal character and dignity. In No 6, as elsewhere, Maltempo is at pains to observe Liszt’s agogic markings, and the repeated octaves of the friss are sensate and musical. Feather-like pianissimo glissandos in the playfully capricious No 10 are brilliantly executed, while the tremolos of No 11 disperse into the air like pungent incense. Shapeliness characterises Rhapsody No 12, its opening declamations bold and square-shouldered rather than strident. The desolate laments at the beginning of No 13 speak of ancient, inconsolable sorrow. Most remarkable here is how the entire lassú unfolds in an integral, coherent whole, rather than stopping and starting in a series of mini-climaxes. The friss, famously incorporated by Sarasate into his Zigeunerweisen, arrives, as if by insinuation, with the tinkling of tiny bells. The last four Rhapsodies, dating from three decades after the final versions of the first set of 15, emerge as craggy, inscrutable, enigmatic utterances whose smouldering fire affords little heat. Their apt realisation is richly imaginative and like no other.
The single stylistic slip I heard was at the very beginning of Rhapsody No 1, where the trochees are misread as iambs. Yet, unlike so many pianists who consider the Rhapsodies licence for all manner of vulgarity, Maltempo faithfully observes Liszt’s text, apart from interpolations from the Hungarian Fantasy into Rhapsody No 14. This well-recorded set, thoughtfully and reverently conceived, captures the magic Liszt invested in these richly evocative pieces, unique in the 19th-century literature.