With the present recording and this future release Liszt: Verdi Opera Transcriptions, it would appear Naxos is once again focusing on the stellar Complete Liszt Piano series, one that might eventually rival Leslie Howard's discography on the Hyperion label. Part of the unique appeal to Naxos's own series, however, is its variety of performers: Arnaldo Cohen, Jeno Jando, Konstantin Scherbakov, and Philip Thomson, to name a few. This time, Giuseppe Andalaro, who won the 2005 International Ferruccio Busoni Piano Competition, makes his debut. Andaloro has his work cut out for him: not only does he tackle the immensely difficult Mephisto Waltzes, but also the Sonata in B minor junior, the Grosses Konzertsolo. In the wrong hands, these can become smeared and overly bombastic; fortunately, they are in the right hands here.
I really think Andaloro's Mephisto Waltzes are superlative. I'll concede that with the dozens of recordings of the First Mephisto Waltz, (Bolet, Berman, Brendel and Wild) Andaloro is not my favorite, but that doesn't mean his interpretation is lacking. In the last three Mephisto Waltzes is where Andaloro truly shines, though. The second MW was written in 1880 originally for orchestra and then transcribed to piano. Both versions are fittingly dedicated to the composer of the Danse Macabre, Saint-Saens. Liszt's second MW is truly a dazzling and grand piano composition, full of demonic weirdness and 20th century dissonances. Andaloro's combination of expert technique, savage attack and a surprising attention to dynamic details make his interpretation outstanding.
Humphrey Searle calls the Third Mephisto Waltz "one of Liszt's finest achievements." Alan Walker observes: "There is nothing in the chord-structures from the aforementioned Third 'Mephisto' Waltz that Schoenberg was not to introduce in his First Chamber Symphony (1906)." Indeed, this piece is a striking and futuristic work. Needless to say, Andaloro's performance is clean, lyrical, and explosive. The Fourth Mephisto Waltz wasn't actually published until the middle of the 20th century, and it's an unfinished work. According to Searle, "Liszt left some sketches for a contrasting section which he intended to interpolate towards the end, and so one cannot speak of the work as properly finished." Clearly, though, this piece can be played independently from the others, and for a three minute work, Liszt condenses plenty of substantial and dramatic ideas. Andaloro, again proves his mettle with this wicked tour-de-force.
The two Elegies make a fine contrast with the devilishly virtuosic Mephisto Waltzes and are filled with tremendous Romantic melancholy. They show no evidence of a knuckle-breaking showman, as Liszt's reputation tended to be and still is. The first is dedicated to one of Liszt's pupils and oozes a morose and nostalgic mood. The second, dedicated to Liszt's first biographer, Lina Ramann, is more passionate and songful. Saving perhaps the best for last, Andaloro makes fine work out of the Grosses Konzertsolo. Too many pianists have tried and failed to create music out of this monster. Clara Schumann hated this piece (probably because she couldn't play it) and Henselt, whom the composition is dedicated to, confessed to having problems playing it as well. Andaloro, however, while not matching the apotheosis that Leslie Howard's rendition reaches, still wins in the end. His interpretation favors a slower tempo in most thematic sections. He also treats one of the cadenzas with an excessive use of dynamics, balancing pianissimo and fortissimo with notable results. I like Leslie Howard's robust interpretation better, but Andaloro still makes it work: the tender phrases are crisp and the bravura passages are full of wild energy.
Bottom line: This is another successful addition to Naxos's Complete Piano Music enterprise. Giuseppe Andaloro's interpretations might not please everyone, but his heart and virtuosity are applied to this music in full. Liszt's Mephisto Waltzes are brilliant exhibitions; the two Elegies are emotional gems; Andalaro's Grosses Konzertsolo is moving and articulate, but I encourage those interested in the Grosses Konzertsolo to check out Leslie Howard's recording (Liszt: Fantasy, Variations, Funeral Odes, Concert Solo).