Celebrity Worship

Franz Liszt is famous for his piano music. It’s high Romanticism at its best. He’s not as well known for chamber music, but as with any formidable talent his skills are not limited. Rachel Barton, violin, and Thomas Labé, piano, team up to play a selection of Liszt’s compositions for violin and piano. Had I heard these compositions without knowing the composer, I’d likely not have guessed it was Liszt. Peaceful, gentle, lyrical come to mind. There’s a tranquil seascape beauty to this music that one might more commonly associate with later Romantic composers such as Strauss, Debussy, Sibelius. And as calming and picturesque the interplay of violin and piano is on this CD, that’s not the highlight. There are two standout pieces filling out the 72+ minutes of this gliding-on-thermals musical flight. In the middle, track 5, is “Sposalizio,” a solo piano work that shows off typical Romantic virtuosity. And then there’s the kicker, possibly Liszt’s most well known work, or overworked work, and known to those who don’t even know who wrote it, the famous, or the made infamous by Bugs Bunny, “Rapsodie Hongroise II,” or translated, “Hungarian Rhapsody #2.”

It’s the closing cut on the recording, as if it were an encore to cap off the glorious preceding cuts—more please. But, gimme a break. Hungarian Rhapsody #2? Really?! The first thought through my head was, “How trite.” After presenting us with eight rarely heard or performed gems, you end with a cliché?

Then I listened. It’s not your Looney Tunes style, blast through it, frantic interpretation. It’s not even a respectable classic conservatory version. Before the end of the first theme you find you’re being presented with a unique perspective. It begins like a plodding dirge—each chord, each note expressed with deliberation—fully unexpected. Clearly Thomas hears this piece in a singular way. He’s taken it inside himself. His mind’s ear is hearing into the core of the music, and he assuredly transmutes his aural apparition for us to experience. It is so distinct that I had to search my other recordings of the rhapsody for comparison. Other than orchestral transcriptions, I only, surprisingly, have one, performed by Lang Lang. Next thought was, “This is going to be interesting.” Lang Lang is, if you close your eyes and ignore his stage antics, the only pianist I’ve heard whose technical expression is impeccable. His playing is so incredibly precise and nuanced, it’s astounding. His recordings of the 1st and 4th Beethoven Piano Concerti are peerless— and that goes for the orchestra too, which is superbly in sync technically and musically. He’s a bright star. I was really hyped to hear these side-by-side.

Contrast number one : Lang Lang’s running time, 9 minutes; Labé’s runs 13 minutes and 36 seconds, 4 and a half minutes longer. Contrast number two : Labé’s cadenza is inspired and generous, which accounts for much of the time difference, 3 minutes and 10 seconds. Lang Lang’s cadenza is short, 10 seconds, although he adds another 20 seconds, give or take, by extending some of the last prestissimo section and adds a few more bars of frenzied flourishes at the hold before the final four bars. Thomas also adds in a few extra interpretive bars at two other transitions (one marked “lunga pausa,” which neither paused at, not even shortly), and another at bar 23 in the score. Still, that leaves a least a minute difference on the written part. The liberties taken by Labé are brilliant, and completely within the context of 19th century performance practices. It’s only been more recent that musicians are expected to play what’s written, and follow the composer’s instructions on the page. Labé’s cadenza cleverly recaps each of the piece’s themes while inserting his own chromatic touches that remind us, despite taking old school liberties, we’re not in 19th century Western Europe. Overall, it’s an energized interpretation which pulls more out of Liszt than the composer could have dreamed. During Liszt’s time cadenzas were improvised. Today, classical musicians rarely improvise, but they do (or should) write their own cadenzas. Contrast three : Lang Lang is a good boy. He follows the written markings fairly faithfully; Labé refuses to be led by a nose-ring. To him the notes Liszt wrote are broad stokes, not law etched in stone. Not to bust Lang Lang’s chops, but he seems to be playing the Rhapsody just for the flash & dazzle. He hasn’t invested much into it or plumbed its visceral parts as he has the Beethoven concerti.

Listen and compare.

Clips 1a + 1b :

Clips 2a + 2b :

Clips 3a + 3b :

Clips 4a + 4b :

No ID necessary, is there? I’ll give you one clue in case you haven’t already figured out who is who. In each case clip “a” is one, clip “b” is the other.

Interpretation is personal. You may prefer Lang Lang’s frivolous version. Either way, this reveals once again, that celebrity is not talent; that brilliance is not exclusive to the big names. It shows how we get carry away with worshipping a few of the upfront, in the limelight personalities while discounting the rest. Making an effort to look under a rock, or around the corner pays off. Talent, great talent, is everywhere. Labé is a prime example of a relative unknown blazing past the famous. He proves how limited our exposure is; how shallow our focus. Who else is out there? What are we missing?

(||) Rating — Music : A- ║ Performance : A ║ Recording : A ║
 Rachel Barton & Thomas Labé, Liszt: Works for Violin and Piano, Dorian Recordings, 1997

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