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Patrick Rucker
Fanfare, September 2011

The year after Hyperion’s 1985 announcement of a project to record all Liszt’s piano music with Leslie Howard, Naxos unveiled its own complete Liszt piano music series. The Hyperion project, originally conceived as 48 CDs, was completed in 1999, and has recently been released as a 99-CD set, including supplemental volumes of late-breaking discoveries. Unlike the Hyperion set, the Naxos series has used a variety of pianists. During the past 24 years, 33 discs have appeared, among them some real gems. The Brazilian pianist Arnaldo Cohen inaugurated the series auspiciously with the solo Totentanz, the transcription of Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre, the Grande fantaisie sur Les Huguenots, and other works (Naxos 8.553852). In 1996 Kemal Gekić’s performance of a number of Rossini transcriptions, including what is probably the best recording of the William Tell Overture, was released (Naxos 8.553961). Jean Dubé’s nuanced and subtle delivery of the two polonaises is also in the running for best-on-record of those difficult pieces; that disc also features the two ballades and the more than slightly outrageous Trois Morceaux Suisses, which Dubé tosses off with tremendous élan and sparkling technique (Naxos 8.557364). Giuseppe Andaloro’s diabolically bracing readings of the four Mephisto Waltzes share a disc with the two Élégies and an eloquent, spacious, and poetic Grosses Konzertsolo (Naxos 8.557814). The talented British pianists Leon McCawley and Ashley Wass recorded Liszt’s two-piano transcription of the Beethoven Ninth in 1997, which is a knock-out both musically and pianistically (Naxos 8.570466). Last year Wass recorded performances of the Impressions et Poésies book of Album d’un voyaguer and another of the more significant early works, Apparitions, displaying enormous pianistic finesse and imagination (Naxos 8.570768).

The 33rd and latest volume in the Naxos Liszt series presents the fascinating American pianist Steven Mayer in a program of Wagner and Weber transcriptions.

Judging from Mayer’s richly atmospheric and perfectly gauged performances, he must have lived with and reflected on the Wagner transcriptions for years. My favorites are the Recitative and Romance (“Song of the Evening Star’) from Tannhäuser and Am stillen Herd from Meistersinger. Mayer’s interpretation of Wolfram’s aria is a model of unaffected, heartfelt sentiment articulated with the utmost delicacy. His exquisite cantabile style is demonstrated in the grace with which he holds the line aloft, without neglecting the subtlest harmonic colors of the underpinning accompaniment. Liszt’s near-ecstatic peroration on Walther’s Am stillen Herd is delivered with appropriate abandon, in a delicious evocation of the naive enthusiasm and ardor of the young knight. No less convincing is the Entrance of the Guests into the Wartburg, in which the bustle and excitement of the crowd, punctuated by trumpet flourishes, is almost palpable. Any recording of the mighty Tannhäuser Overture, one of Liszt’s most inspired orchestral transcriptions and certainly among the most difficult, is bound to invite comparison with the readings of two other pianists, Benno Moiseiwitsch and Jorge Bolet, who made a specialty of the piece. If Mayer’s approach does not equal Moiseiwitsch’s coloristic brilliance or Bolet’s vision of unfolding drama, it is nevertheless a superbly convincing performance, unerringly musical, with deft renderings of the often complex textures and a tremendous momentum propelling the music forward. The Oberon transcription is one of three Liszt made of Weber’s opera overtures in 1846. This performance is as fresh and poised as the orchestral original, providing an extra dimension to a fine selection of Liszt’s loving transcriptions of German opera.

This is a welcome addition to the Naxos series, and one of the finer ones to date. It is a pleasure to encounter again the estimable artistry of Steven Mayer, a pianist from whom we can only hope to hear more. Warmly recommended.

Brent Auerbach
American Record Guide, September 2011

…I am pleased to report that it is of high quality. The sound is outstanding. All the tones are pure and sweet, with not a single ugly strike to be found anywhere. Mayer’s technique is well suited to this difficult and ornate music: the scale work and flourishes are outstanding. In addition there are a few truly impressive moments, such as the concluding minutes of ‘Am Stillen Herd’ from Meistersinger, where the initially soft tones grow imperceptibly into the thundering chords of the final cadence. Another highly satisfying experience is supplied by the ‘Entry of the Guests’ from Tannhäuser. This, one of the few works exhibiting any real zip…

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2011

We have now reached volume 33 in this complete cycle of the piano music of Franz Liszt, and have returned to his large collection of transcriptions. Though Wagner remained rather ambivalent to Liszt, he should have been deeply indebted to him for bringing about performances of his operas throughout Germany. Liszt went further in making piano transcriptions of music from his operas in order that it could be performed before those music lovers who lived far distant from opera houses. The present disc contains excerpts from Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Die Meistersingers and Der Ring des Nibelungen. At times, as in the Overture to Tannhäuser, he offers a straight transcription, at others, as in the extracts from the Ring cycle, he uses much imagination. Equally there is quite a spread of technical expertise required, the cascading section of the Tannhäuser not something a pianist would look forward to in concert conditions. At the other extreme, the delicately handled transcription of the Recitative and Romance from Tannhäuser, O Star of Eve, is quite simply stated. The disc ends with a very fulsome adaptation of the Overture to Weber’s Der Freischütz. Maybe these transcriptions have served their original purpose and remain little more than period pieces, but given the wholehearted performances from the American pianist, Steven Mayer, and they offer much pleasure, his technique making little of pages black with notes. I wish the engineers had tamed the brightness of the upper octaves in otherwise good sound.

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