Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Adrian Corleonis
Fanfare, June 2008

In the New York Times, November 1, 1987, Bernard Holland concluded a perfunctory review of William Wolfram in concert with, "I suspect that if he gets the career he so obviously yearns for and probably deserves, he will have much to tell us in about 20 years." And so he does. The competition is thin but keen in this recherche program. One may have heard the Lucia Sextet more lyrically melting from Bolet—or with more horripilating coruscations by Howard—while Raymond Lewenthal's mordant tilt at the Funeral March from Dom Sebastian (from LP days, Angel S-36079—if ever this made it to CD, I missed it) remains unsurpassed. One may also follow a more broadly drawn narrative through the Lucrezia Borgia fantasies—representing the young Liszt at his most exuberantly overloaded (even in the pared second version offered here)—with Antony Peebles (Meridian 84278, Fanfare 30:4). And so on. But those advantages are mostly marginal—equivocal, even—as Wolfram looms brilliantly in performances notable for Big Technique aplomb in which Liszt's efflorescence is turned, as intended, to expressive purpose, dimpled with nuance, and rippled with elan. Unless you're following in score, an occasional carelessness (e.g., the fudged segue from the cadenza in the Lucia Sextet) will probably go unnoticed. This appears to be the only other offering, since Howard's 1990 tilt ("Liszt at the Opera, Volume One," Hyperion 66371, Fanfare 14:3), to include the Funeral March and Cavatina with the Sextet, as Liszt intended (until his publisher objected to their combined length). Sound is open yet closely detailed, ranging from a gutsy roar to blinding brilliance. Recommended.

Michael Cookson
MusicWeb International, March 2008

Whoever really wants to know what Liszt has done for the piano should study his old operatic fantasies. They represent the classicism of piano technique.” - Johannes Brahms

This Naxos series of the Complete Piano Music of Liszt has been going from strength to strength. A couple of months ago I selected two discs from this series as my 2007 ‘Records of the Year’: volume 24 played by Giuseppe Andaloro on 8.557814 and volume 25 played by Alexandre Dossin on 8.557904.

Performed by American soloist William Wolfram this instalment contains a selection of attractive operatic transcriptions and reminiscences from the operas of Gaetano Donizetti. This is Wolfram’s second disc in the series and I enjoyed reviewing his earlier volume 20 from 2003 that includes the 2 Concert Etudes; 3 Etudes de concert; Etude en douze exercices and Mazeppa on Naxos 8.557014.

Liszt was a highly prolific and versatile composer who, according to Humphrey Searle’s works listA (1966), produced around eight hundred scores - embracing most genres - about half of which are for piano. A more recent Liszt work listB identifies around a thousand works.

In the days before gramophone records, radio broadcasts and the miniature score, save for attending an actual performance, music-lovers only had access to orchestral and operatic scores in pared down arrangements that were principally for the piano and for performance in the drawing room or salon. Liszt was the undisputed master of the ‘art of the transcription’ making numerous arrangements of songs, operas and symphonies. He mainly championed the music of those contemporaries that were in vogue or he felt deserved attention. For example, the reputation of Schubert’s lieder was greatly enhanced by the liberal advocacy of Liszt’s numerous transcriptions.

Transcriptions and arrangements, sometimes known as piano reductions - also prepared for other solo instruments such as the violin and cello - were the lifeblood of many virtuoso performers in Liszt’s day. Although providing no financial profit to the original composer, Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini, Wagner and Verdi all benefited from Liszt’s forays into their operatic works by assisting in the dissemination of their scores to a wider audience. The transcription served to popularise the melodies from their operas and still further advance their reputations. Liszt knew many of the famous operas of the day intimately having conducted many of them in his role as Kapellmeister at Weimar. A Liszt transcription was no mere plagiarism but a sincere tribute from one great composer to another. A quick check reveals that opera paraphrases and transcriptions often formed a significant and popular part of a Liszt piano recital programme.

The first work here is the Valse de concert sur deux motifs de Lucia et Parisina, S.214/3. The Valse de concert was one of a set of three Caprices valses and the score was published in 1852. Liszt uses as a theme the aria Verranno a te sull'aure from Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) and also a theme from the second act of Parisina d’Este (1833). Searle describes the Valse de concert as having, “all the freshness and brilliance of Liszt at his youthful best.”A

For the next score Réminiscences de Lucrezia Borgia, S.400 Liszt has turned to the opera Lucrezia Borgia (1833, rev. 1839 and 1840) that Donizetti based on Victor Hugo’s dramatic play. Cast in two parts the Lucrezia Borgia Réminiscences published in 1849 were held in high regard by the composer. In the first piece Liszt utilises material from the trio of the opera titled Trio du second Acte and with the second piece he takes music from the Chanson à boire from act two and also from the prologue. It seems that this is Liszt’s revision of an earlier score from Hamburg in 1840.

The Réminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor is taken from Donizetti’s three act opera of 1835 based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor. It was composed in 1835-36 and is in two parts which were published separately in 1841 and 1844. The first, the Andante final, S.397 is a transcription of the celebrated sextet from the second act. The second, the Marche funèbre et Cavatine de la Lucia di Lammermoor, S.398 is based on the funeral march that laments the death of Lucia from act three and the cavatina.

Donizetti’s four act opera La Favorite was completed in 1840 for Paris. Wagner clearly admired La Favorite making several arrangements including a piano score. Liszt uses Wagner’s arrangement as the basis for his transcription of Fernando’s beautiful cavatina from the fourth act titled Spirto gentil, S.400a.

The final work on the disc is from Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal, the last of Donizetti’s operas to be composed. Donizetti considered this grand opéra in five acts, completed in 1843 for Paris, to be his masterpiece. It was in 1844 that Liszt made his transcription of the opera’s funeral march. Liszt must have been most proud of his Marche funèbre arrangement because in 1845 he presented a “dedicated copyC to Queen Maria II of Portugal at the royal palace in Lisbon. Donizetti himself also admired Liszt’s Marche funèbre transcription, a tour de force of the répertoire, calling on a friend to, “Buy Liszt’s arrangement of the March; it will make your hair stand on end.”C

New York City-based pianist William Wolfram is on splendid form throughout these technically difficult, emotionally demanding and physically taxing works. He expertly negotiates the wide gamut of intense emotions. I was able to identify: the stormy power of anger, the hurt of jealousy, the immediacy of the dark melancholy of abandonment, the turbulent emotional depths of the heartbreaking pain of grief, the sensitivity of the rapture and elation of love and the surging energy of the dread of impending violence. This 2006 Toronto recording is clear but a touch bright for my taste. 

--Review by Michael Cookson, Musicweb International, March 2008


[A] ‘The Music of Liszt’ by Humphrey Searle, Dover Publications, second revised edition (1966)
[B] As part of the International Music Score Library Project, Wikipedia (the free on-line encyclopedia) hold a detailed and helpful guide titled ‘List of Compositions by Franz Liszt’ that is based Humphrey Searle’s 1966 Catalogue of Works and evidently contains additions made by Sharon Winklhofer and Leslie Howard. Designed in two sections the list of Searle numbers (S) run from S.1-S.350 and S.351-S.999. This Wikipedia list proves to be valuable tool for Lisztians.
[C] Franz Liszt (Volume 1), ‘The Virtuoso Years 1811-1847’ by Alan Walker, Publisher: Cornell University Press (1983, revised edition 1987) ISBN 0-8014-9421-4. Pg. 411

Liszt’s letters: Some 260 of Liszt’s letters are available in English translations.

Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, February 2008

Liszt’s piano music is surely his greatest achievement, so it’s gratifying that Naxos have pressed ahead with their survey, now at Volume 27. It’s not the only such collection – Leslie Howard blazed the trail with his 94-disc set for Hyperion – nor is it all essayed by a single pianist. That said, the Naxos discs are at budget price, which will always tempt collectors looking for quality music-making at a modest price.

There’s nothing modest about the pianistic talents of William Wolfram, whose earlier contribution to this series – Volume 20 – garnered much praise from my colleagues Colin Clarke and Michael Cookson (review). Here he tackles the Donizetti arrangements, just one spur of Liszt’s opera-inspired output that included Auber, Bellini, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Verdi and Wagner.

Wolfram certainly has a commanding keyboard presence. In Lucia et Parisina one marvels at the ease with which he dashes off this extravagant music, while in the earlier Réminiscences de Lucrezia Borgia he builds the tension at the beginning of the Act II trio very well indeed. But he also manages to sound poetic in the quieter, more lyrical moments – even if there aren’t many of those in this collection.

The piano sound is impressive, wide-ranging and clear without being over-bright in the runs and roulades of Chanson a Boire or unfocused in the magisterial chords that bring the Borgia trio to a close. The aural perspective is a touch shallow but then a more immediate sound probably suits this repertoire.

Which is a good time to issue a health warning. Extraordinary as Wolfram’s playing undoubtedly is, the high decibel count is apt to become tiring after a while. Indeed, the sustained avalanche of sound in the closing moments of the Borgia piece might have you reaching for the pause button or switching off altogether.

But not for long. The Andante final – taken from the Act II sextet of Lucia – has the usual brilliance plus eloquence and lyricism. This is simply spellbinding music and Wolfram certainly has the magician’s touch when it comes to conjuring up a theatrical atmosphere. That is especially true of the funeral march, which captures all the gloom and despair of Lucy’s death with its lowering chords and implacable rhythms. Wolfram’s wizardry extends to clarity and articulation, notably in Liszt’s juxtaposition of ‘Esci, fuggi’ from Act II and Edgar’s Act III heart-wrencher 'Tu che a Dio spiegasti l'ali'. In a concert hall an electric performance like this would surely have the audience leaping to their feet as one.

Liszt’s version of Ferdinand’s cavatina ‘Spirto gentil’ from La favorite, itself based on Wagner’s piano transcription of the opera, is full of Italianate drama and pathos. As always Wolfram has an unerring feel for the dramatic peaks and valleys of this music; more than that he spins some long, singing lines as well. There is a real emotional tug to this performance that is every bit as gripping as one  in the theatre.

Wolfram invests the funeral march from Donizetti’s last opera, Dom Sebastien, with a craggy grandeur – cue massive, rough-hewn chords that call for more power than subtlety. But then there’s nothing reticent about this music, and the recorded balance reinforces that point. Perhaps Naxos could have planned this survey rather differently – as Hyperion have done – and programmed a mix of composers on this disc, rather than concentrate on one.

That minor caveat aside I can only endorse the positive comments about Wolfram’s playing – it really is that good. Collectors who already have the Howard performances may feel those are unassailable, but if it’s value and good music-making you’re after this Naxos release is self recommending.

Jed Distler, January 2008

Liszt's Donizetti transcriptions tell as much about their transcriber's singular bravura as they do about the prolific Italian opera composer's unstoppable melodic invention. The ideal interpreter should be able to make light of the enormous technical challenges without forgetting to let the tunes take shape in the manner of a great opera singer. Fortunately William Wolfram commands the right stuff to bring these chestnuts to life. He may not always match Leslie Howard's pearly nuances in slower, quieter passages, yet Wolfram brings much more drive and scintillation to the huge Lucrezia Borgia paraphrase's notey climaxes. He also finds varied colorations that prevent textural stagnation in the Dom Sebastian funeral march's frequent bass-register rumbles. The Valse de concert consistently demonstrates Wolfram's unflappable workmanship and sheer professionalism. While he negotiates the Lucia di Lammermoor sextet's thickets without a hitch, I can't erase Jorge Bolet's aristocratic cantabile from my inner ear, or from my hard drive for that matter! No doubt that Liszt mavens will want to know about this fine, often outstanding release.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2007

It was all the vogue in the 18th century to have your senses titillated by works that displayed the performer’s virtuosity, and if that were combined with the use of popular melodies from opera, the delight would at least be threefold. As has often been said, audiences don’t go to see if the tightrope walker gets to the other end, they go to see if he falls off. And so it was with musicians, the composers providing all the challenges that could court in disaster. Liszt wrote over forty operatic transcriptions often using the trick that the pianist must have three hands to play the decorations and the main melody, the right hand often called upon for the most elaborate arabesques. Donizetti’s colossal fame at the time did not last, and Lucia in Parisina, based on a poem by Byron, is now long forgotten, the theme for the waltz coming from the second act. The extended Lucrezia Borgia transcription lasts for over twenty minutes using the trio from the second act and the following Drinking Song. The best known work comes with the combination of two Lucia di Lammermoor extracts that were originally published separately. Spirto gentile is taken from the fourth act of La favourite, the sad march forming part of the composer’s last opera Dom Sebastien, roi de Portugal. William Wolfram is not a flashy pianist who throws caution to the wind in order to excite, his brand of Liszt is one of the utmost clarity, his virtuosity placed at the service of the music rather than as an example of personal brilliance. Tempos are still often hair-raisingly fast, the octave passage in the finale of Lucrezia Borgia a moment to savour, while Wolfram’s sense of fun often surfaces, the Drinking Song (track 3), just gently lurching around. Certainly this is one of the finest releases in the Naxos complete Liszt, and a top recommendation. The recording made in Toronto’s Glenn Gould studio is an object lesson in Liszt recordings, the filigree sparkling, while the lower octaves are thrillingly robust.

Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, November 2007

This is Vol.27 in Naxos' ongoing complete piano works of Liszt, a project of daunting proportions not likely to be duplicated by any other record company. I've not found many of Liszt's operatic reworkings very captivating, because his references to the source themes are often oblique and hard to find under all the self-serving pianistic embellishments and fireworks for their own sake. This is not the case here, fortunately - perhaps because Donizetti was such a superb melodist. Wolfram's playing is a model of stylish clarity, rendered in superb audio.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group