Liszt : A Critical Discography, part 1 – Piano Collections


Humphrey Searle compiled a catalog of works written by Franz Liszt in 1966.  He numbered over 700 compositions, dividing them into original works (S.1-S.350) and fantasias, transcriptions and other derivative works (S.351-S.768). There are several box sets that attempt to survey Liszt’s solo piano oeuvre, but only three attempt to do this completely.

howard_boxLeslie Howard recorded the complete works for piano on Hyperion Records in a box set of 99 CDs, priced reasonably at about $2.50 per disc depending upon the exchange rate for dollars : pounds.  Howard’s playing is generally very good, but when performing this much music it is hard to believe that everything was performed at the same level.  Nevertheless, any serious Liszt collector should probably find room in his budget for this box.  It won’t be around forever, either, although lossless downloads will continue to be available on the Hyperion site.

naxos_boxNaxos Records, has embarked on a project to issue all of the piano music by Liszt performed by a group of pianists.   These recordings have generally been praised, Jando’s Hungarian Rhapsodies in particular.  If variety of interpretation is your preference, the Naxos set is the way to go; however, Leslie Howard is no slouch and often times his performances are arguably better than any in the Naxos collection.  Sold separately, the Naxos collection is significantly more expensive than Howard’s.  Naxos may eventually box them up, but I doubt they will ever be priced as reasonably as the Hyperion set, which is more complete in any event.

johansen_boxGunnar Johansen has also recorded nearly all the published music in 50 volumes, but these must be bought at $10/disc from the website devoted to his recordings.  His performances are considered some of the very best, but sound quality is an issue, and of course the expense.

Peter J. Rabinowitz, writing for Fanfare Magazine, had this to say about these recordings:

Liszt’s music needs to be spectacular rather than merely showy, diabolic rather than merely dissonant, self-absorbed rather than merely inward; and any attempt to minimize these qualities undercuts the music’s essence. 

Johansen, fortunately, takes the fundamental Lisztian arrogance into account: these performances are explosive, rather than refined, and they don’t avert their glance from Liszt’s demonic side. True, Johansen’s technique, while fairly good, is not of the superhuman variety that we find in such pianists as Berman and Bloch. But in the end, that only adds to the power of the performances. For Johansen never takes the easy path: he never slows down for the difficult passages, and he never loses sight of the underlying curve of a phrase in an attempt to get all the particular notes under his fingers. 

Aside from these sets, there are some multi-disc sets available which make no attempt at completeness but will attempt to include a variety of important works. The most common sets are by Claudio Arrau, Jorge Bolet, Sergio Fiorentino, Georges Cziffra, and Aldo Ciccolini.  A couple of others, not as common are from Idil Biret who has collected all of her Liszt recordings into a 10-CD box called The 200th Anniversary Collection, and there is a 14-CD box by France Clidet that includes most of the major works and many works not included in any but the three complete collections..

What I look for in a Liszt box is some mix of the following works:

  • Piano Sonata in B Minor
  • Hungarian Rhapsodies
  • Transcendental Etudes
  • Significant portions of Années de pèlerinage
  • Transcriptions and paraphrases
  • Ballades, Polonaises, Consolations, Harmonies, Legends, and others from the hundreds of single movement works

Some boxes also include the concertos.

Also, we must not forget Jerome Rose who has recorded a lot of Liszt ( in very good performances), about 10 CDs worth (with some overlap), but it is not collected in one convenient box.  His excellent account of the Années de pèlerinage is complete on 3 CDs; he’s recorded the Concertos, Totentanz, and the complete Transcendental Etudes; the Piano Sonata in B Minor, Mephisto Waltz, Don Juan Fantasy can be found in a 2-CD set; Harmonies, Legendes, Consolations, Weihnachtsbaum in another 2-CD set, or get 6 Paganini Etudes, 5 Concert Etudes, 2 Ballades, 4 Waltzes, 2 Polonaises, 3 Liebestraüme, 4 Mephisto Waltzes, 2 Legends, and 6 Consolations and more of the miscellaneous works in his “40th Anniversary Collection,” a 3-CD box

Earl Wild also recorded at least six CDs worth of music by Liszt, in generally very good performances.  You can find these recording on his website most of which are now available from the Ivory Classics label.

bolet_boxJorge Bolet. This 9-CD collection, priced very reasonably, is the one I think has the widest breadth and his performances are very reliable for most of the works he performs.  This Bolet collection with 9-CDs is nearly twice as big as Arrau or Cziffra and significantly more than you will get with Fiorentino all meaning you get more of all areas of the music.  And Bolet is widely considered a Liszt interpreter of the highest rank.  Unless you invest in one of the complete sets, this box is the next best thing.

Jed Distler, ClassicsToday:

Whoever said “an aristocrat never hurries” might well have referred to Jorge Bolet’s Liszt recordings for Decca, now conveniently gathered together in a space-saving, budget-priced boxed set. Bolet was in his mid-60s when he embarked on this series, and he harbored no inclination to outdazzle his younger Lisztian cohorts. His noble, full-bodied sound and elegant reserve largely bypass the showmanship and outward panache we associate with Liszt. Instead, Bolet stresses the composer’s lyric breadth and luminescent textures. As I commented in my earlier review of selections from Bolet’s Decca Liszt output, climaxes are coaxed from the key beds rather than pounded out. His suave and caressing scales and runs contrast to the fire-and-brimstone pianists such as Lazar Berman and Gyorgy Cziffra serve up in Liszt’s more fierce Transcendental Etudes and the Tarantella from “Venezia e Napoli”. In addition, Bolet’s tempos rarely move faster than Liszt’s arching melodies can be projected by the human voice. 

You’re guaranteed to profit by investing in this collection, for Bolet’s subtle, seasoned mastery grows on you with each rehearing. 

arrau_boxClaudio Arrau.  His 5-CD set for Phillips is an excellent set, however there is an arguably better way to get these recordings. Universal France has issued them as a 6-CD box with some original recordings restored that were missing from the Phillips box. Either will set you back more than for Bolet’s or Cziffra’s.

Arrau didn’t begin recording his Liszt series for Philips until he was nearing seventy, not necessarily an auspicious age to be taking on such a technically challenging project, yet the energy and imagination he brought to this music was truly remarkable.  Although Claudio Arrau had impressive credentials as a Liszt player – his only teacher was Martin Krause, who was a student of Liszt – and he performed many of the composer’s works early in his career, he neither exploited this association, nor became known as a Liszt specialist. Perhaps this was because Krause warned him not to become a specialist in the music of any one composer.

cziffra_boxGeorge Cziffra.  This 5-CD collection of previous recordings (many from the 1950s) for budget price is lauded by some but may be not for everyone.  Despite his obvious technical facility with the music (his B Minor Sonata is one of the best) I sometimes feel he is playing through the music without giving it much consideration.  Also, the 1950s mono recorded sound is at times brittle and dry.  Still, he is one of the best at capturing the sense of Liszt, the diabolical as well as the more contemplative.  At his best no one plays Liszt better.

fiorentino_boxSergio Fiorentino.  A highly regarded 6-CD box that is slanted towards the more impressionistic of Liszt’s works.  Which is good, since tempestuousness is not what Fiorentino is about, but that is a big part of what Liszt is about.  Limited in scope, but valuable nonetheless.  Hard to find, prohibitively expensive at Amazon US.  Try European outlets for the best price.

Andrew Clements from The Guardian sums it up pretty well:

Piano Classics’ collection of his Liszt recordings, mostly dating from the 1950s and 60s but with one disc including the B minor Sonata from 1997, shows what a great artist Fiorentino was. There’s a wonderful sense of selfless authority and technical mastery about the playing; nothing here is overblown, and every thing is shaped with an instinctive musicality. The set ranges right through Liszt’s output to a wonderful collection of the late pieces, though there are some notable omissions – there are no Transcendental Studies, and only the first, Swiss, book of the Années de Pèlerinage. Transfers are mostly excellent – only the disc of works with orchestra shows its age; all the playing is timeless.

biret_200thIdil Biret’s new Liszt album (2010) prompts a reappraisal of her extraordinary talent…In her Sonata…you will hear playing of a formidable power and assurance…There is no mistaking her lightning reflexes in the second of the Paganini Etudes and her vivo in the imitation sautille bowing of No 4 would make even Heifetz envious. Biret’s brilliant, iron-clad Steinway is well recorded and…in her Liszt, there is stunning proficiency and a forbidding manner very much her own.” GRAMOPHONE (UK) / Bryce Morrison

clidetFrench pianist France Clidat studied with Lazare Levy at the Paris Conservatory, receiving first prize in piano in 1950. In 1956, she was a prize winner at the Liszt Competition in Budapest, an event that launched her career as a concert artist renowned for her interpretations of the piano compositions of Liszt and Satie. She was awarded a Grand Prix du Disque for her recording of Liszt’s complete works for the piano. Other recording projects have included explorations of works by Satie, Rachmaninov, and Grieg. She was made a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 1976 and a Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite in 1987. Clidat taught at the École Normale de Musique in Paris and published articles about the performance of Liszt’s solo piano music.

ciccoliniFinally, we come to Also Ciccolini’s wonderful set.  At first glance one might not think of Ciccolini as someone with an affinity for Liszt.  When I think of Ciccolini, the two composers who come to mind are Erik Satie and Mozart.  Both are composers known for their understatement and pristine fragility.  None of that sounds like Franz Liszt whose larger than life music demands the opposite approach.

However, Adrian Corleonis, Fanfare’s Lisztian, wrote:

As the stereo era dawned, Aldo Ciccolini was one of the heavy hitters in bringing Liszt to discs, both in the sense of giving magnificent voice to large portions of his most surefire work—(e.g., all three years of the Années in 1962) at a time when the Liszt discography seemed to have run aground on the same couple dozen pieces—but also in his chiaroscuro pianism, going for the gusto without lingering for nuance or subtlety in favor of a grandly Italianate singing line cresting viscerally compelling élan. “Venezia e Napoli” appeared in 1969, the Liebesträume, Consolations, Ballades, and Légendes through the 1970s, the opera paraphrases through the 1980s, crowned by the complete set of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses in 1990. Recorded in the Salle Wagram with only three engineers over the years, sound is strikingly uniform from decade to decade—close, richly detailed, hiss yielding to silence as technological responsiveness captures him with increasing gutsiness from the 1980s.

Here is Liszt at his most immediately appealing, though Ciccolini is not always stylistically aware—the Rigoletto Paraphrase, for instance, is played, against the grain, as a rendition of the stage event rather than a distantly savored recollection of it.  The set is generously priced. And the narrow box, grandly filled, its five CDs in cardboard sleeves, will fit snugly on your loaded shelves. Enthusiastically recommended. 

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