Maltempo’s Liszt Rhapsodies: Very Close to Ideal

Maltempo’s Liszt Rhapsodies: Very Close to Ideal – Classics Today

In an earlier review, I wrote how no Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody cycle on disc completely satisfied. I posited a hypothetical reference version that would fuse each modern-era cycle’s best qualities, such as Artur Pizzaro’s tone, George Cziffra’s imagination, Leslie Howard’s scholarship, Louis Kentner’s stylish authority, Roberto Szidon’s panache, plus the clean reproduction and solid musicianship characterizing Philips’ two cycles respectively featuring Michele Campanella and Mischa Dichter. I didn’t mention shellac and mono-era versions from Mark Hambourg, Alexander Borovsky, Alexander Brailowsky, Edith Farnadi, Samson François, nor Cziffra’s earlier traversal, but my point was clear. The young Italian pianist Vincenzo Maltempo, however, comes closer than anyone on disc to achieve an ideal Hungarian Rhapsody cycle.

His Lisztian instincts are as sound as his transcendent technique, and he never makes a musical mistake. For example, Maltempo captures and sustains the brooding, introspective qualities of No. 3, No. 5, and the introductions to Nos. 1, 7, 9, and 13 without losing shape or vibrancy. No. 6 is so elegantly sculpted and nuanced that Maltempo’s nervous energy in the infamous right hand repeated-note octaves catches you off guard in a good way. The pianist’s ebullient manipulation of tonal and textural light and shade keep the arguably overlong Nos. 9 and 14 rivetingly afloat.

While many pianists either bang through or make mud out of the No. 15 Rákóczi March’s low-register introduction, Maltempo actually lets you hear the notes as he carefully builds up to the theme’s first statement. No. 10’s rhetorical conceits and humorous glissandos may not match Arthur Rubinstein or Guiomar Novaes for infectious joie-de-vivre, yet Maltempo’s pinpointed control justifies his poker-faced demeanor. The short and strange Nos. 16, 17, and 18 come off splendidly, although I wouldn’t have minded had Maltempo monkeyed with No. 19’s text in the manner of Horowitz, Cziffra, or Janice Weber.

The pianist amends the famous Second Rhapsody with a convoluted cadenza of his own invention. The cadenza is effective, but I still prefer Marc-André Hamelin’s wittier, more harmonically adventurous and succinct concoction. But that’s a minor bone to pick. In addition to the excellent engineering, Maltempo has the advantage of an unusually resplendent Steinway D that responds to his every gesture. Highly recommended.