November 2007

Liszt - Piano Concertos 1 & 2; Totentanz
Arnaldo Cohen, piano; São Paulo Symphony Orchestra; John Neschling, conductor
BIS SACD -1530
Format: Hybrid Multichannel SACD
Released: 2007

by Rad Bennett

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

Franz Liszt’s works for piano and orchestra were all conceived long before they were finalized. No doubt this was due in part to the composer’s legendary and time-consuming appearances as the premiere pianist of his era. The first performance dates of these three pieces are in 1855, 1857, and 1865, which makes them appear closer together than they actually are. Concerto No. 1 was first played by Liszt himself with Hector Berlioz conducing. What a premiere that must have been!

There have been dozens of recordings of all three of these compositions, and I have some favorites, as I am sure you do, too. Alfred Brendel and Artur Rubenstein spring to mind. Yet these Brazilian performances go beyond anything I’ve ever heard. Brazilian-born Arnaldo Cohen has prodigious technique. He can really make the rapid passages glitter. He often uses a secco approach in the left hand, which is especially successful in passages like the one at the beginning of the Totentanz. His playing is vibrant and exciting. Yet he can turn around and break your heart with sentiment, as in the second movement of the first concerto, where nuance seems an inadequate description. His fellow Brazilian, John Neschling, does far more than merely accompany. Theirs is a partnership where each is as involved as the other. The orchestra members also catch the glow and play with precision and passion.

BIS has not let anyone down on the recording end of things. The sound is very transparent yet solid. The first concerto’s triangle, which can become pesky in rough hands, is in perfect balance and remains part of the ensemble, contributing to the particular coloration that the composer wanted. The two-channel CD and SACD layers are just fine, the multichannel one adds a bit of presence and sounds more spacious. This is not only a contender for best disc of the year but best performance of these works as well.