SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

“Wagner Idyll” = Isolde’s Liebestode from “Tristan und Isolde,”; Fantasy in F-sharp Minor; Spinnerlied from “The Flying Dutchman,”; Siegfried Idyll – Vestard Shimkus, piano – Ars Produktion
LISZT: Funérailles; Études d’exécution transcendante: No. 10. Allegro agitato molto; No. 11. “Harmonies du soir”; 3 Sonetti del Petrarcha; RAVEL: Gaspard de la nuit; SAINT-SAËNS: Danse Macabre – Yevgeny Sudbin, piano – BIS

Two recitals in the grand tradition of the nineteenth-century piano virtuoso.

Published on March 23, 2013

“Wagner Idyll” = Isolde’s Liebestode from “Tristan und Isolde,” WWW 90; Fantasy in F-sharp Minor, Op. 3, WWW 22; Spinnerlied from “The Flying Dutchman,” WWV 63 (trans. Franz Liszt); Siegfried Idyll, WWV 103 (trans. Glenn Gould) – Vestard Shimkus, piano – Ars Produktion multichannel SACD ARS 38 123, 67:46 [Distr. by Qualiton] *****:

LISZT: Funérailles; Études d’exécution transcendante: No. 10. Allegro agitato molto; No. 11. “Harmonies du soir”; 3 Sonetti del Petrarcha; RAVEL: Gaspard de la nuit; SAINT-SAËNS: Danse Macabre (based on the transcription by LISZT) – Yevgeny Sudbin, piano – BIS multichannel SACD ARS 38 123 CD-1828 [Distr. by Qualiton], 73:46 *****:

Here are two recital albums that will take you back to the good old days of the Romantic-era virtuoso—but without the bad old habits of overindulgence and downright bowdlerization that Liszt and his imitators were sometimes guilty of. No swooning and mugging for the audience either. Just dazzling pianism—some of it truly transcendante.

First, young (age twenty-nine) Latvian pianist Vestard Shimkus plays the kind of transcriptions that Liszt reveled in—including a very fine transcription by Liszt himself, that of the charming “Spinning Song” from Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Not to be outdone, Shimkus includes his own transcription of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. It’s clearly in the Lisztian mold, but without the keyboard-spanning pyrotechnics that Liszt (and his audiences) just couldn’t do without. There are quite enough fireworks, however, without the need for Shimkus to traverse all eighty-eight keys. The transcription does exploit the wonderful chiaroscuro effects that added such drama to Liszt’s music—his own and that of other masters—as Shimkus moves from the dark of Isolde’s lament to her ecstatic hopes of reunion with the dead Tristan.

Shimkus’ recital includes a transcription from an unexpected source, at least unexpected by me: Glenn Gould’s lovely one of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. However, it’s certainly not unexpected or unknown to Gould fanciers and is available on Sony in a performance by Gould himself and includes what must have been a rare outing for Glenn Gould as conductor. I haven’t heard Gould’s performance, which Thomas Höft assesses as “unusually slow. . . . It seems that Gould wanted to highly the work’s polyphonic structure while savoring the voluptuousness of Wagner’s late romantic melodies to the full.” Höft goes on to say that Shimkus plays it a bit faster and injects his own interpretive insights. All I can add is that Shimkus’s hushed, ethereal playing perfectly matches the tenderness of this delightful music.

But that’s not all, as the pitchman says in those commercials that give you more and more incentives to pick up the phone and order. Shimkus includes another gem that makes this disc just about indispensable for Wagnerians as well as pianophiles: Wagner’s 1831 Fantasia in F-sharp Minor, a work obscure enough to make Wagner’s two symphonies seem like mainstays of the repertoire. Actually, this is not the first recording of the work though you may have trouble tracking down the rival versions, and I can’t imagine they even begin to approach the sympathy and beauty of playing that Vestard Shimkus brings to the work. What does this piece by the sixteen- or seventeen-year-old Wagner sound like? Pretty much like Schubert to these ears. If the young Wagner were going to choose anyone as a model, Schubert, master of the piano fantasy, was the obvious choice. However, since Schubert had been dead only three years at the time and remained a largely obscure composer even in his native Austria, Wagner’s choice shows just how forward looking he was even at this tender age.

Captured in sumptuous surround sound, this is an aural bubble bath of Wagnerian delights that you should order up for yourself forthwith. You won’t regret a single indulgent moment of the experience.


Except for the abridged (around eight minutes in length) transcription of Saint-Saëns’s tone poem, Yevgeny Sudbin concerns himself with familiar works by Liszt and Ravel, so his recital is of another order than that of Vestard Shimkus. Given the quality of the performances, it may be even more indispensable.

Right from the big, bell-like chords that kick off Liszt’s Funérailles through the accelerated march that ends the piece—an angry, resolute apotheosis to his Hungarian countrymen killed in the 1849 uprising against Austrian rule—Sudbin faithfully recreates Liszt’s harrowing and finally liberating and uplifting tribute. (Unfortunately, I can’t listen to this march-like section without thinking of the piano accompaniments you hear in restorations of silent films. Liszt just has a natural swagger and bombast that fits hand in glove with those bigger-than-life emotions captured on the silver screen. Younger listeners will, probably, be spared such unfortunate associations.)

Sudbin’s Transcendental Etude No. 10 is suitably hair-raising, but then he’s able to turn on an emotional dime, rending the Etude No. 11 in shimmering patterns of light and dark, with the subtlest inflections of tempo and dynamics.

The Three Petrarch Sonnets come from Liszt’s second installment of Années de pèlerinage dedicated to Italy. They attempt to capture the emotions stirred in Petrarch by his unrequited love for his Laura, and as Sudbin’s notes to this recording suggest, Liszt uses harmonic modulation, repeated notes, decrescendo—as many pianistic tricks as he could assemble to approximate the sounds of sighing and weeping, as well as the inward manifestations of a doomed love affair. Sudbin may have a point when he writes, “as we read, we realize that Petrarch’s internal struggle may not have been about Laura at all, but rather the eternal conflict between flesh and soul—an unwinnable battle only too familiar to the womanizer Liszt (although for him lack of reciprocation was not an issue, with divorces being filed en masse whenever he appeared in town).” Ha, ha! But then Petrarch always maintained that Laura was a real flesh-and-blood character for whom his love was real and truly painful. Yet there is expressed in Petrarch that natural conflict, for the medieval Christian, between love of God and fleshly love; and this is certainly something Liszt understood, especially in later life, as he tried to remain the good Abbé Liszt despite the fleshly enticements that still managed to cross his path.

The intersection of the fleshly and divine occurs for both Petrarch and Liszt in Sonnet 123, where, as Sudbin expertly expresses things, “Liszt manages to capture this celestial serenity and tenderness in an extraordinary way, by the amorphous nature of the speed (Lento placido), by expressive indications (dolcissimo, dolcemente) and by using a dynamic range between p and ppp. This last sonnet is like a hallucinogenic, amorous dream. . . .” Sudbin spins the dream in a gorgeous haze of notes.

Sudbin’s notes make clear that he’s chosen his companion pieces carefully. Gaspard de la nuit carries on the funereal and fantastic elements that Liszt explores in his music; Ravel’s triptych ends where Liszt’s Funérailles begins, with the incessantly tolling bells of Le Gibet (“The Gallows”). And Danse macabre, with its opening peal of midnight, closes the circle. More, Sudbin sees Ravel’s Impressionistic night painting as anticipated in Liszt’s extraordinary Harmonies du soir and elsewhere in these selections from the Hungarian composer. So, as Sudbin notes so eloquently, “Clearly, Liszt was looking over Ravel’s shoulder, and yet, like with a lot of Liszt’s music, to regard Gaspard purely as a virtuoso showpiece is to miss the point completely. In fact, as soon as one frees oneself from the concern about hitting its ungodly number of notes in the right places and starts thinking more in terms of color, moods and shades, the work embraces you with open arms and becomes a life-long friend.”

It’s evident that Sudbin has lived with all these pieces a long while and has thought deeply about them individually and as parts of an extraordinary recital—one that I urgently recommend.

—Lee Passarella




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