, June 2011
The typical approach to Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, Misha Dichter writes in his perceptive, brand-new liner essay to this reissue, is to treat them as a sort of canvas for the artist to paint with his/her own colors, ideas, and “folk-style” improvisations. Figures like Roberto Szidon have given themselves a great deal of leeway in stretching Liszt’s dynamics, or inventing their own, and inserting improvised passages; when it comes to the occasional improvisational riff, even the staid Jeno Jando couldn’t resist joining the fun. Dichter, in contrast, asks: why treat the careful markings in these scores any different than, say, the markings in a Beethoven sonata? Why rule some composers’ intentions inviolable, or sacred, but treat Liszt like an opportunity to play around?
Dichter’s playing is not dry. No, in order to achieve dryness in this music you would have to deviate enormously from Liszt’s instructions! The scores themselves are full of exactly the coloristic effects which the composer thought would achieve Hungarian character and a native musical language, and Misha Dichter interprets with a touch that’s sensitive to all of this. The whole palette is well-used.
The opening of No. 2 is driven hard, the dark episode taking on its own dance quality at Dichter’s quick tempo. Nos. 3 and 4 are excellent; Dichter’s lighter touch is conducive to greater atmosphere in the former and a lighter, more vigorous campfire dance in the latter. His playfulness in introducing each new episode reaps further rewards in No. 7. The funeral march, No. 5, is paced perfectly. And listen to the almost meek, plainly-dressed way the final episode of No. 14 begins, and the way the scene builds before, as time runs out, the music is leaping and bounding the type of enthusiasm and rich color which would have us writing, if Dichter were Hungarian, that he “had the music in his blood.” Only Nos. 6 and 15 (the Rakoczy March) are a bit of a let-down, somewhat plain and lacking in panache, and the Carnival in Pest is no place for sobriety, but the last four rhapsodies, from Liszt’s final years, are simply superb, especially No. 17’s compact but powerful emotional arc. It is not hard to tell that these are Dichter’s favorites.
Another attraction is the very fine sound, some of it producer Volker Straus’ resplendent late 1970s Philips sound and some of it early digital without the unpleasant glassiness. Somehow over eight years of recording, in the same Swiss Alpine town, the acoustics have been kept remarkably consistent.
Probably Liszt enthusiasts will want to keep their top-choice Rhapsody recordings (Cziffra, anyone?) but this is, I must say, a fantastic set, and one likely to become a mainstay in my collection. Dichter’s Rhapsodies are poised, dramatic, precise without being artificial, and boisterously colorful without being tacky. In other words, he takes his merriment seriously. Since these two discs sell for the price of one, a recommendation is delightfully easy.