Reaching for the moon
Zeynep Ucbasaran plays Liszt, reviewed by
Faint heart never won fair lady, and Zeynep Ucbasaran,the lady at the piano here, certainly cannot, herself, be accused of faint-heartedness in tackling this most demanding programme. Unfortunately, when it comes to playing Liszt, satisfactorily, far more virtues are required than mere courage, and I am afraid that the results that emerge on this CD suggest that the heart is not ruled by a head that should have urged a great deal more caution in contemplating a mission that reaches for the moon.
In any professional performance of a programme such as this, the listener must be able to take pure digital technique for granted -- as the necessary servant of the story-teller and poet that Liszt requires the re-creative artist to be. Ucbasaran, although she does, it is true, deliver most of the notes on the page, is stretched beyond her technical limits. In the demonic Dante Sonata from the second (Italy) year of the Années de Pèlerinage, where, quite literally, all hell should break loose, this lack of technique makes the experience a very damp squib. Liszt marks the section after the introduction
[listen -- track 1, 1:33-2:38] presto agitato assai, adding,
additionally, along the way con impeto and disperato, leaving no possible doubt that caution has to be thrown to the winds by a performer who has fingers and nerves of steel. Liszt's Italian directions can be loosely translated as 'give them hell!' The only disperato element in this performance is in coping with the torrents of chords, even, as here, at a sedate allegro moderato. A reading of Dante was, to Liszt, a dark emotional, psychological and philosophical nightmare. Here, it is merely a technical one.
I listened to this disc whilst recovering from the seasonal misery of a heavy cold, so, in fairness, I had to ask myself whether it was myself or the performance that was off-colour. In search of an answer, I took down Jorge Bolet's treasurable survey of Liszt for Decca from my shelves, and compared like with like. Alas, for the entire recital, my negative imperssions were cruelly confirmed. It took only the menacing calling-card octaves of the first two bars of Dante to find here the arresting, spine-tingling sense of urgency and doom that Bolet brings to the piece. And when he launches into the evocation of the winds of hell, the effect is terrifying indeed, yet one is never aware of technique per se, only as a totally controlled means to an evocative end. The difference is palpable.
What then of the yearning melancholy and ravishing beauties of Vallée d'Obermann, that veritable tone-poem from the first (Swiss) year of the Années? In the opening paragraph, Liszt 'orchestrates' these infinitely sad bars with the directions quasi cello, and then quasi oboe. Bolet sings sorrowfully with both these contrasting voices, whereas Ucbasaran strikes notes on the piano, and fails to properly delineate the textures. Solo and accompaniment merge confusingly. And the magical moment where the tortured chromaticism momentarily resolves onto a balmy and ineffably warm spread chord of E flat goes unnoticed. The 'big tune', heard first in the upper register in a plaintive C major, and later emerging in all its glory in fully-flowered E major
[listen -- track 2, 11:11-12:39]
is almost unbelievably perfunctory. The whole performance is, to my ears, soulless and cold.
And the 'pure music' of the great B minor Sonata? Liszt in this inspired half-hour span re-invents the form in a tour de force of ingenious invention and thematic metamorphosis. Everything of Liszt is here in these pages: the questing revolutionary, the virtuoso, the tender lover, and the white-hot power of musical invention. The performer must realise these awesome truths, conceptualise them and deliver to their audience a total experience. Many have tried and failed. Only a few have succeeded. Bolet is one of that elect number, and I listened to him with renewed pleasure and gratitude. Ucbarsan, alas, brings to the work the same deficiencies as I found in the other pieces: fragmentation, technical struggle, limited dynamic range and a lack of heart and warmth, even in the technically less demanding central section, in F sharp major, which cries out to be sung from the depths of the musical soul [listen -- track 4, 2:15-3:48].
I hate to be so negative in any appraisal, but this venture was, to my mind, ill advised, especially in a richly supplied market of great performances. As a moon-shot, it stands, I regret to say, alongside