Wednesday 25 July 2012

Phenomenal Liszt from Sinae Lee

In my Blog of 3rd March 2012 about Tchaikovsky’s reputation I wrote about my copy of a 1925 edition of a book on Liszt by Frederick Corder, a professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music, who said of Liszt ‘…the themes are often very beautiful, but they stick out like the almonds in a Dundee cake, they fail to cohere…’

I speculated as to why Corder bothered to write a book about Liszt at all given his low opinion of Liszt as a composer.  Of course the answer was simply that many people in the earlier part of the 20th century regarded Liszt merely as a great pianist who happened to write inferior music.

In 1961 a Sunday Times reviewer referred to Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasia as ‘tawdry’ but it was a Times correspondent who came to the defence of Liszt saying of Sviatoslav Richter’s Royal Albert Hall performance of the A major concerto ‘…(it was) a grand act of restitution for Liszt, a glorious snub to the Philistines who can still be heard decrying his genius.’

Now, of course, Liszt is viewed very differently by many people and his music is very much part of the repertoire. That is not to say that there aren’t areas of neglect. A decade or so ago, when I tried to obtain a recording of his Missa Solemnis, the only recording available was on Hungaroton  I notice now that there is another recording on Arte Nova  but still the work is far from popular, which is a shame for such a beautiful work.

I have always thought that Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) haven’t had the popularity on disc that they deserve with many pianists preferring to play selections as part of a recital.

Of the complete recordings Lazar Berman on Deutsche Grammophon has been a long admired recording as has Louis Lortie’s fine recording for Chandos. My own personal favourite that I return to frequently is Jeno Jando’s Naxos recording . Jando is, perhaps, not as universally appreciated as he should be no doubt due to his extremely prolific output for Naxos, but his Années de pèlerinage are possibly the finest recordings he has made for that label.

A new release from RCS (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland)  issued by Nimbus Alliance  has Sinae Lee performing Liszt’s complete Années de Pèlerinage.

NI 6202

South Korean born Sinae Lee has won a number of prestigious prizes and now has a busy career as soloist and chamber musician as well as being a lecturer at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

She came to greater prominence with her highly praised recording of the complete piano works of Karol Szymanowski on the Divine Art label that was a Gramophone Magazine Recommended Recording, BBC Music Magazine Benchmark Recording, MusicWeb Recording of the Month and Pianist Magazine Recommended Recording.

Turning to this new issue, such is the immediacy and spontaneity of these performances they have the feel of a live performance. Perhaps they were recorded using long takes with little or no editing. However they were done, they are performances of power and authority showing clearly that Sinae Lee has these works in her repertoire (she performed them in their entirety in 2011 both in the UK and Korea).

She has a crystalline purity to her playing as well as great fluency yet in such pieces as Sonetto 104 del Petraca from the Second Year (CD2) she displays phenomenal technique in playing that conjures up pure Lisztian spirit.

At the commencement of the First Year (Switzerland) (CD1) Sinae Lee gives a broad tempo with wide dynamics in Chapelle de Guillaume Tell (William Tell’s Chapel). Au bord d’une Source(Beside a Spring) highlights Lee’s fluency, whilst in Orage (Storm) she gives an edge of the seat performance almost at the expense of phrasing.

In Valle D’Obermann (Obermann’s Valley) her playing is of such intensity that there is what sounds like a misplaced note but that in no way detracts from the enjoyment of these riveting performances.

In Les Cloches de Geneve (The Bells of Geneva) Sinae Lee plays with a beautiful purity of tone that gives just the right degree of clarity before rising to a superb climax before the quiet ending.

It is the second CD in this set that shows Sinae Lee at her phenomenal best though that is not to say that the other CDs are any less of an accomplishment. There is a wonderful intimacy as well as bravura to her playing of Sposalizio (Marriage) whilst Il Pensieroso (The Thinker) is beautifully conceived. Sonetto 47 del Petrarca (Petrarca sonnet 47) shows the pianist’s ability to pick out all the Listzian changeabilities of mood and pace.

There is phenomenal playing in Sonetto 104 del Petrarca (Petrarca sonnet 104) leading to Sonetto 123 del Petrarca (Petrarca sonnet 123) where she conjures up a real Listzian feel, full of poetry and drama. In the Apres une lecture du Dante Fantasia Quasi Sonata, the so called Dante Sonata, there is stupendous playing of a true Lisztian.

The Third Year (CD3) has an Aux Cypres de la Villa D’Este of wonderful breadth and sweep whilst the concluding Sursum Corda makes a magnificent conclusion to this cycle.

When so many pianists show a clinical perfection but little character it is wonderful to hear a pianist that is not afraid to take risks especially when the results are as fine as this. Although there is occasionally a wiry sound in the upper register as a note dies away, the recording is nevertheless clear and detailed.

I doubt that there will ever be a single first choice in this repertoire with all its different moods but certainly Sinae Lee’s magnificent recording should be heard by all Lisztians. It will be the performance that I return to most frequently.

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