Liszt, Saint-Saëns, Ravel - Sudbin

Liszt, Saint-Saëns, Ravel - Sudbin


Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Instrumental

Franz Liszt: Funérailles, from Études d'Exécution transcendante - No. 10 (Allegro agitato molto) & No. 11 "Harmonies du soir", 3 Sonetti del Petrarca, Maurice Ravel: Gaspard de la Nuit, Camille Saint-Saëns: Danse macabre (based on the transcription by Franz Liszt)

Yevgeny Sudbin (piano)

Following a series of highly acclaimed recordings dedicated to individual composers, Yevgeny Sudbin has combined works by Liszt, Ravel and Saint-Saëns into a recital with the three-stranded theme Love, Delirium and Death. First to make its presence felt is death, in Funérailles, Liszt’s grandiose elegy for his Hungarian countrymen who died in the 1849 uprising against Habsburg Rule.

It reappears in Ravel’s depiction of a hanging – Le Gibet (The Gallows) from the triptych Gaspard de la Nuit – and closes the programme in Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre in which Death personified provides the music for a morbid ballet of corpses, playing a fiddle and tapping his foot on a tombstone. Love enters the programme with the Petrarch Sonnets, originally song settings by Liszt of three of the many poems in which Petrarca immortalized Laura, the object of his life-long but unrequited passion, and later reworked for piano solo by the composer. A similarly hopeless attraction is described in Ravel’s Ondine – the tale of a water nymph tempting a mortal to join her in the depths of the lake. Delirium, finally, is present throughout the disc – most manifestly in the nightmarish portrait of the goblin Scarbo, but also as an essential ingredient in many of the other works. The programme thus poses a huge challenge for the performer in terms of transmitting a wealth of super-charged emotions and images while simultaneously negotiating immense technical demands – a worthy task for Sudbin, whose Scriabin interpretations were described in BBC Music Magazine as being ‘as terrifyingly changeable and emotionally all-engulfing as the music itself’, while his Rachmaninov disc to the reviewer in Piano Magazine revealed ‘a musical dramatist of exceptional acumen and sophistication; a poet who moves seamlessly between unbridled rhetoric and extreme intimacy; a stylist who catches the particular spirit of everything he plays…’

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PCM recording

Recorded in February 2009 (Gaspard de la nuit), in July 2010 (Transcendental Étude No. 10), in October 2010 (Sonetti 104 & 123), in January 2011 (Transcendental Étude No. 11) and in April 2012 (Funérailles, Sonetto 47, Danse macabre) at the St Georges, Bristol, England, 24/44.1

Grand piano: Steinway D

Piano technician: Chris Farthing

Recording equipment: Neumann microphones; RME Octamic D microphone preamplifier and high-resolution A/D converter; Sequoia Workstation; Pyramix DSD Workstation; B&W Nautilus 802 loudspeakers; STAX headphones

Post-production: Editing: Elisabeth Kemper, Nora Brandenburg
Mixing: Marion Schwebel, Jens Braun (Take5 Music Production)

Executive producer: Robert Suff
Reviews (1)

Review by John Miller - November 22, 2012

Multi-composer recitals seem to have been side-lined compared to single-composer discs by the recording industry. It was Liszt who effectively invented the concert recital, and appropriately, therefore, it is Liszt whose music dominates this intriguing and effective compilation by the brilliant young Yevgeney Sudbin.

His lucid and personal insert notes tell us that "'Love, delirium and death' is the subject matter of this programme, most of which was first set down in words and then transformed to music". An inspired and enlightening rationale indeed for his varied yet unified selection. The pieces, he also tells us, were considered for their harmonic complexities and mutual relationships. Following through, he outlines these relationships in the booklet commentary.

Admitting to waiting to tackle Liszt until he felt more mature, Sudbin shows that he doesn't use the composers music as a mere vehicle for demonstrating his piano technique. In fact, it is Liszt's inherent poetry and overt emotion which shine through the selected pieces here, rather than the dazzling displays of bravura, spectacular they may be. In Funérailles, he reconstructs Liszt's recollections of the tragic Hungarian uprising against the Hapsburg rulers of the country in October 1849. While there is no specific literary item specified by Liszt, he was no doubt exposed to newspaper reports and published poetry about the affair. Sudbin awakens the kraken in his Steinway's bass region with Liszt's gloomy, dissonant and relentlessly tolling deep bells, the piano's slightly close and dryish sound being quite appropriately effective. When Sudbin's bitter view of the halting funeral march reaches the mid and treble ranges it is cold and empty of expression until a tender theme of regret enters, melting and full of subtle rubato. Soon, it blossoms into a wild burst of anguish which then is interrupted by a wrist-pulverising galloping octave bass with a secco march above, remarkably like the central portion of Chopin's Polonaise in A flat - possibly a homage to Chopin, who died in 1849, also in October. All through this epic piece, Sudbin has you on the edge of your seat as he relates the heroic story, culminating in a few dry stabbing chords in sorrowful diminuendo.

Two of Liszt's Transcendental Studies S.139 follow, portrayals of wild Nature and soaring passion, technically stunning, but perfectly balanced by the gentle, blossoming lyrical interpolations; the essence of the Romantic movement, of which Liszt was such a leader. Playing them as if they are each the equivalent of a symphonic poem, Sudbin demonstrates that Liszt's designation here does not refer to practice of a particular technique but rather study of a whole pianist interpreter, to see if they can really bring this flamboyant music to life.

Less transcendental, at least in technique, Liszt's settings of three of the great Italian poet Petrarch's sonnets, first as songs, then as piano pieces, are about love in its various forms and expressions, from angelic grace to imprisonment of the lover's soul. As Liszt was reacting to the poetry directly in each one, the poems are included in English translation in the disc's booklet. Under Sudbin's sympathetic and effective hands, subtleties and surging passions are revealed most touchingly, as if the poems were being recited to the listener. A tender and mature interpretation which remains long in the memory.

Leaping forward into the twentieth century, Sudbin next explores another setting which arises directly from poetry. Ravel insisted that the three poems he set from 'Gaspard de la Nuit' by French Symbolist Aloysius Bertrand be printed at the head of each piece by his publishers, and he sternly admonished any of his students whom he found had not read the poems before starting to learn the pieces, - Ondine, Le Gibet and Scarbo. Congratulations to Sudbin and BIS for including them in the notes!

These legendary symbolic figures (and a symbolic device for hanging) were very prominent in the Gothic fantasy movements of the time. Bertrand's influence on Ravel's creativity caused the composer almost to transcribe the poems into transcendental pianistic wizardry. Not the greatest pianist himself, one of his objectives was to have Scarbo in particular cited as the most difficult piano piece, pushing aside Mussorgsky's Islamy.

Sudbin's notes clearly indicate his personal battles to take Gaspard into his repertoire, and relates (with obvious relief) that the three fiendishly difficult pieces have now become like friends. And what interesting and compelling readings of them he gives. Ondine, the water-spirit song, is exactly as he describes her, iridescent. Her beguiling nature is, however, cold, but nevertheless captivating. The opening few bars with a notoriously difficult repeated chordal figure is nearly impossible to be played evenly, and Sudbin has not yet quite mastered it, but the rest of his Ondine sweeps one away.

Le Gibet has to remain at a slow, steady pulse all the way through its short progress, which Sudbin coolly manages, with the distant tolling bell being sounded constantly, chilling the bones. Sudbin's Scarbo is, correctly, not the Devil, nor truly evil, but certainly exudes menace, with his sudden gyrations, appearances and disappearances, and trick of seeming as tall as the moon. So clean is Sudbin's articulation, that he seems to be playing faster than Argerich, although in fact he is about 12 secs shorter than her in a movement about 9 minutes long. The eerie sense of Scarbo's aura is very well projected, and the wildest passages have a sense of risk-taking, which is frisson-making for the listener. Full marks too for Sudbin's meaningfully nonchalant throw-away ending.

While the subject matter of Saint-Saens' 'Dance Macabre' seems an appropriate follow-up to Gaspard, I'm not really convinced by Liszt's transcription of Saint-Saens' dazzling symphonic piece, with the devil playing his violin and bones rattling around. This piece was also inspired by a poem, the work of Henri Cazalis (a translation of which is also in the booklet). Liszt transcribed it, possibly for an encore to one of his epic recitals, and much later Horowitz revised this, adding quite a few notes to suit his own virtuosity. Sudbin feels that some of these added notes detract rather than enhancing, so he has removed them, wickedly adding that he added "some minor liberties of my own".

Some of Liszt's transcriptions of orchestral pieces work marvellously, others don't. Somehow the lightness, colour and French sparkle are missing, and the transcription is rather wooden, despite Sudbin's obvious advocacy of it. The piano is also rather close, so that the long, very loud passages become somewhat relentless and the upper treble looses lustre.

Recorded in St Georges Church, Bristol, England over 6 sessions from 2009-2012 within a more or less neutral acoustic, the balancing between sessions has been very well done, the on-disc transitions are hardly noticeable and do not detract from the illusion of a single recital. The Steinway is very well presented, but perhaps a little closer than usual for BIS, so that the upper treble above fortissimo in some takes is not so pleasant as already remarked, and there are also some thumps from releasing the dampers at cadences followed by silence. Presentation is up to the usual BIS high standards.

Despite one or two minor niggles, this is a really enjoyable and thought-provoking recital from Sudbin, and deserves the widest possible exposure. It is pointless to make comparisons piece-by-piece, the pianist clearly presents this collection purposefully, and that comes over very well, so the programme as a whole is coherent; the sum is more than its parts. Enjoyable and highly recommended, not just for already convinced Sudbin fans.

Copyright © 2012 John Miller and