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Chris Green
Opus Klassiek, October 2011

Liszt…spanned a variety of styles of important figures in the musical world. [The concertos] demonstrate his fluency for piano writing but also using the orchestra in an economical but interesting way. From Naxos Records, the two concertos are coupled with Totentanz in a vivid recording in which the newly invigorated Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is joined by soloist Eldar Nebolsin and conducted by Vasily Petrenko who is making considerable waves in the north-west of England. © 2011

John J. Puccio
Classical Candor, December 2009

Naxos must have sensed something special about this disc because they gave it special treatment with a fancy slipcover. They were right. The disc is special, with excellent performances and excellent sound, a secure investment all the way around.

It seems appropriate that pianist Eldar Nebolsin won first prize at the first Sviantoslav Richter International Piano Competition in 2005; Nebolsin’s interpretations of the two Liszt piano concertos remind one quite a lot of Richter’s famous recordings. Nebolsin is bold when he needs to be and remarkably poetic, too, producing a First Piano Concerto that is both grand and lyrical. Sometimes it isn’t as easy to pull off it seems.  Liszt wrote the First Concerto in four short, cyclically connected movements, unusual in itself, and they are played without a break. Nebolsin brings it off brilliantly.

In the Second Concerto, which is graver, more serious, and, as critics would say, more mature, than the First, Nebolsin is appropriately more somber. It’s interesting that the Second Piano Concerto never became anywhere near as popular as the First, though, so what do critics know. Nebolsin makes the First Concerto seem cheerful and outgoing by contrast. The accompanying Totentanz is similarly charged.

Naxos engineers provide the piano and orchestra with good, clean, wide, robust sound.

Steven J Haller
American Record Guide, March 2009

Clearly Nebolsin has this music in his fingers…There is sheer pyrotechnic display on offer here that rivals the best on my shelf; most impressive is his light touch in piquant passages like the notorious “triangle” episode of the E-flat Concerto—but also his trenchant glissandos at the close of the A major and again soon after taking center stage in Totentanz. He commands a formidable dynamic range; yet he knows when to caress the keys, and he graciously steps aside for his woodwind colleagues or the soulful Liverpool cellist who joins him for a rapt duet in the central section of 2. But both here and in the Quasi adagio of 1—likewise the religioso episode of Totentanz—he seems to equate poetry with lack of forward motion, reminding the listener that the cello can sustain the musical line far better than the piano…Even so, perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Nebolsin’s performance in these fiendishly difficult pieces is his highly infectious confidence—even bordering on cockiness—that keeps you on the edge of your seat wanting to hear what he’s going to do next. There’s simply no point coming to this music with an attitude unless you’re fully capable of pulling it off—and he is.

The Liverpool musicians do a remarkable job of taking Nebolsin’s hairpin turns right along with him, though really loud climaxes bring with them a fair degree of glare. In Totentanz the horns are too far back to register with full effect in the stentorian opening pages, but they sound forth in splendid fashion (as they should) in those brazen “hunting horn” fanfares around 11 minutes in—if only Petrenko didn’t take it so slow!…but if you’re looking for a good low-cost introduction to this music, or want to hear a gifted young pianist who may well be the Richter of his generation, here’s your chance.

Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, February 2009

If, like me, you already have recordings of these concertos then you may well feel like moving on to another page. But hold on a minute. Yes, you may have the great Richter, the blemish-free Berezovsky, the powerful Zimmerman. You may have the exact coupling by the much underrated Arnold Cohen or you may cherish, as I do, the version conducted by Giulini with Lazar Berman. However the version under review here is also worthy of your attention. Eldar Nebolsin is certainly no slouch, and as for the RLPO, well Vasily Petrenko has caused quite a stir in Liverpool. Having heard him about three time times in the last year I can vouch for the dedicated hard work and flare that he brings to the orchestra and all who work with him. In addition the Naxos engineers have captured the Philharmonic Hall in an exceptionally powerful and realistic recording.

Nebolsin it was, by the way, who, aptly, won the Richter Prize in 2005 for his Mozart concerto playing. Funnily enough it is his experience in Mozart that might account for the elegant and lyrical way he has with the slower music of the First Concerto. Listen for example to the first movement’s second subject and the whole of the second movement. This is not an OTT performance. Indeed the scherzo, famous for its deliberate triangle solos (!) is extremely fleet of foot; more power to the RLPO for that. This concerto caused Liszt some little difficulty. Sketched originally in 1832 when he was 21, he orchestrated it as late as 1849 with the help of Joachim Raff. It was revised in 1853 and first performed in 1855. One advantage of the work is that it weighs in at less than twenty minutes. Lazar Berman mentioned above is almost two minutes longer but this is partially thanks to Giulini’s insistence on drawing out the slower music to extremes. This new version is to the point but loses none of the work’s interest. In fact, for me it helps to hold my interest.

The same comments could well apply to the Second Concerto. This is a more subtle work which involves itself much more in the transformation and metamorphosis of themes which combine at different tempi throughout. Divided into four movements but played without a break these brief movements include mood and tempo changes. Liszt was occupied with the Concerto from 1839 up to the time of eventual publication in 1863. It received its first airing in 1857. Recommended performances might include Kondrashin on Philips or Emanuel Ax on the Theta label. Whilst it’s true to say that Nebolsin could be dreamier in the dreamy sections and the Allegro deciso third section could have more attack, this new version is beautifully recorded. All of the details are quite clearly heard across the wide stereo picture and although not riveting, it all works as a good-quality performance which can happily take its place on any shelf.

What is it about the Dies Irae—a fragment of plainchant from the requiem mass about the Day of Judgment—which so haunted a great many Romantic composers. Rachmaninov, another composer-pianist was obsessed with it, using it in many works for instance ‘The Isle of the Dead’ for obvious reasons, and the better known ‘Rhapsody on theme of Paganini’. Paganini, it was said, was so brilliant that he must be in league with the Devil, hence the Day of Judgment. Liszt, likewise was a man that feared judgment hence his eventual acceptance into the Roman Catholic church to appease his life-long sins—so he thought. Indeed the work may well have been inspired by a visit to Pisa with his mistress Marie d’Agoult who produced three children by him. There he saw a certainly moving Last Judgment fresco in the so-called Monumental Churchyard. It is attributed to Andrea Orcagna (c.1350). Liszt wrote what amounts to a series of five variants on the plainchant with the extraordinary virtuoso outer sections framing somewhat more reflective inner ones. It is a startling and very satisfying work. The myriad technical difficulties are awesomely overcome by Nebolsin who is, as in the concertos, always thoughtfully and ably partnered by Petrenko’s orchestra.

All in all this is a very satisfactory combination of works. They are nicely presented with booklet notes by Keith Anderson and biographies and photos of the main protagonists.

Jeremy Nicholas
Gramophone, February 2009

Naxos joins the Liszt with performances that rank among the finest

Not only can the performances hold their own with the very best of the same three works (Nelson Freire/Michel Plasson, Arnaldo Cohen/John Neschling inter alia)but the individual concertos compare with those by the likes of Katchen and Richter. They are that good. And if I have yet to hear another opening of Totentanz that makes you jump out of your skin quite like Raymond Lewenthal’s (admittedly in his own arrangement), Nebolsin and Petrenko are almost as chillingly shocking. The fugato (Var 5) is attacked with thrilling pace and precision on a par with Marc-Andre Hamelin’s overlooked live account from the 2007 Ruhr Festival.

Nebolsin, winner of the first Sviatoslav Richter International Piano Competition in 2005, is a virtuoso of power and poetry. While allowing the music to breathe, he plays in long paragraphs without, as it were, having to come up for air. Try the scintillating final pages of the E flat Concerto in which Petrenko, always an alert partner, catches the ball and runs with it. Recorded sound (Tim Handley and Phil Rowlands) is exemplary. At super-budget price, the disc is a real bargain.

Jed Distler, February 2009

Eldar Nebolsin’s world-class virtuosity thoroughly holds its own alongside the catalog’s finest Liszt Concerto traversals…this release is an attractive bargain…

Michael Cookson
MusicWeb International, January 2009

In the E flat major [Concerto] Nebolsin does a splendid job with the contrasting demands, working with Liszt’s inconsistent genius, with writing that is brilliant one minute and bordering on the vulgar the next. In the opening Allegro maestoso the confident Nebolsin takes the music briskly, developing considerable excitement…Nebolsin in the Quasi adagio provides sensitive playing that I found considerably moving. One cannot fail to notice the fine orchestral accompaniment…In the third movement, marked Allegretto vivace—Allegro animato…Nebolsin plays with energy and bounce. I was especially impressed with his focus in the slower passages…There’s urgency and enthusiasm from Nebolsin in the Allegretto marziale animato…Nebolsin’s spirited playing of the Presto conclusion is impressive; exuding real confidence…

Dreamy playing from Eldar Nebolsin can be heard in the opening Adagio sostenuto—Allegro agitato movement [of the Piano Concerto No.2 in A major] and this he develops with assurance and vitality. The RLPO brass and woodwind excel in a most pleasing performance…Calm and relaxed playing characterises Nebolsin’s approach in the Allegro moderato which is flowing and controlled throughout. The RLPO too are in marvellous form, however, the solo cello part is played with confidence yet lacks beauty of tone…In the Allegro deciso Nebolsin adopts brisk speeds, playing with purpose, although, I would have preferred additional weight. I was struck by Nebolsin’s convincingly executed changes of mood…

In the Totentanz I was struck by the sense of drama and foreboding that Nebolsin and the RLPO under Vasily Petrenko manage to communicate. One notices Nebolsin’s menacing tread in variation 1, the brisk rocking excitement in variation 2 and the bass-laden and threatening variation 3. I experienced the hymn-like variation 4 as serene and meditative that contrasted starkly with the severity and earnestness of variation 5. The frenzied activity of the Cadenza from Nebolsin’s nimble fingers is followed by variation 6—very much evocative of a hero’s triumphant return home. The second Cadenza is effervescent and bursting with energy. Nebolsin and Petrenko’s players conclude this exciting and dramatic score with a tremendously performed Allegro animato interpreted with just a suggestion of the macabre…

The competition is extremely intense for recommended recordings of Liszt’s two Piano Concertos and the Totentanz. For Naxos Nebolsin greatly impresses with great enthusiasm and vigour which he combines royally with innate musical intelligence. He is greatly supported by the admirable RLPO under their exciting and charismatic principal conductor Vasily Petrenko; who has presided over the recent revival of the orchestra’s fortunes.

Julian Haylock
Classic FM, January 2009

For many years Krystian Zimerman (on Deutsche Grammophon), and Sviatoslav Richter and Alfred Brendel (both on Philips) have held sway for imparting a refreshing nobility and purity to these blockbuster showpieces. It is a mark of the Uzbekistan pianist Eldar Nebolsin’s achievement here that he not only survives comparison with these legendary figures, but brings a magical intensity to the concertos’ many passages of quiet repose that is very much in a class of its own. Some may miss the adrenaline-saturated bravado of Samson Francois and Georges Cziffra (both on EMI), but for Liszt playing of heart-warming sensitivity, wisdom and poetic insight Nebolsin has few rivals. Excellent accompaniment from the RLPO and Petrenko.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2008

The Tashkent-born pianist, Eldar Nebolsin, completed his list of competition successes by winning the first Sviatoslav Richter International Piano Competition held in Moscow in 2005. He had already built a reputation as one of today’s outstanding young keyboard exponents, appearing with more than a hundred of the most famous orchestras. Now thirty-four, he has a commanding presence at the piano, his intensely expressive accounts of the two Liszt’s two piano concertos a most stimulating experience. There are moments when he brings a personal touch, particularly in his spacious approach to slow passages, but as a library copy that is faithful to the composer in terms of dynamics and rhythmic exactitude, you need look no further. Like many of today’s younger generation, he plays even the most mercurial and demanding passages with crystalline clarity, and while he avoids overt showmanship, there is no lack of spine-tingling brilliance in the appropriate moments. He turns on the full gamut of virtuosity for Liszt’s Dance of Death where he seems to defy the fact that he only has two hands. All too often all three works become a soloist’s ego-trip, but here Nebolsin is happy to share the stage with a Royal Liverpool Philharmonic which is in superb form for their Russian conductor, Vasily Petrenko. They are on equal terms in those moments where Liszt creates smooth lyric passages, with the many solo orchestral moments confirming the outstanding quality of Liverpool’s principals. The engineers have created a natural concert hall balance between soloist and orchestra.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group