“1847: Liszt in Istanbul”
Franz Liszt: Grande paraphrase de la marche de Donizetti, S.403 – Donizetti - Réminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor, S.397 – Bellini - I puritani: Introduction et polonaise, S.391 – 12 Lieder von Schubert, S.558, n° 4.: Erlkönig – Ungarische Nationalmelodian/Mélodies hongroises, S.242/1-3 (excerpts) – Bellini: Réminiscences de Norma, S.394
Carl Maria von Weber: Invitation to the Dance, opus 65, J. 260
Frédéric Chopin: Mazurka n° 25 in B Minor, opus 33, n° 4
Zeynep Ucbasaran (pianist)
Recording: Nilento Studio, Kĺllered, Sweden (June 21-22, 2012) – 66’37
Divine Art DDA25213 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in English
In her new album, Turkish-American pianist Zeynep Ucbasaran performs recital favorites that Franz Liszt played during his tour of Turkey in 1847, his last year as a touring virtuoso. Liszt spent a month in Istanbul (then known as Constantinople), a musically sophisticated metropolis where he presented several concerts, including two at the Sultan’s palace. In the Ottoman world, Liszt encountered an enthusiastic audience for his rhapsodic paraphrases and reminiscences of Italian opera which offered a rich canvas on which he could display the most effusive pianistic art.
Ucbasaran offers a mature but sparkling reading of the early works of the Franco-Hungarian composer as well as selections by Frédéric Chopin and Carl Maria von Weber. Grandeur and breadth are the name of the game in the opening selection, Grande paraphrase de la marche de Giuseppe Donizetti, composed specifically in honor of the Sultan. The pianist provides a commanding and, at times, light-hearted reading of this whimsical march.
Following this spirited opener is Liszt’s Reminiscences of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a lavish expression of the Sextet from Act II performed with elegance and conviction. Ucbasaran’s approach reminds us that the piano is considered by many to be a percussion instrument. While there are few sweeping or panoramic explosions of Romantic passion, the pianist provides a delightful clarity of tone and firmness of touch. This is a kind of interpretation well worth hearing.
After a playful rendition of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, Ucbasaran performs a technically precise Chopin Mazurka n° 25, with its springy continuation of a dance-like motif. I was a little less taken by the performance of Schubert’s song, Erlkönig. Ucbasaran provides a powerful rendering of Liszt’s vision of the ghostly tale with its mysterious dark undercurrent, but not emphasizing sufficiently the urgent melody which is carried by voice in the original song.
Three Hungarian Rhapsody excerpts dispel Schubert’s tragic mood, though these are not the fiery dances one often hears. Instead, selections labeled “Lento”, “Andantino” and “Sehr Langsam” soothe the senses and prepare the listener for the highlight and final work of the album, Réminiscences de Norma de Bellini.
In this masterpiece, the longest work on the album, Ucbasaran weaves together an authoritative air and pearly tone gleaming from the upper register. The entire keyboard is engaged, and one can only regret that this recording does not come with a visual component so we may see this marvelous artist tracing cascades of arpeggios and releasing bright high notes like sparks of electricity. Ucbasaran has a unique ability to convey a sense of structure with the mighty building blocks of sound while beguiling with phrases sometimes delicate, sometimes combative.
Still, I would be remiss if I did not mention another recording of this work by a different artist also being released this spring. I was driving to the park this weekend when I turned on the radio, and there it was: the Norma Réminiscences, triumphant over the scratchy limitations of my car’s speaker. It is one of my favorite light works by one of my favorite composers, and in a performance of such drama, intensity, and heartbreak, it was almost unbearable. I pulled over to listen, and soon learned that the pianist was none other than Benjamin Grosvenor (in a review, I marveled at his performance of a Beethoven concerto in Philadelphia just two years ago).
Grosvenor’s rendering wasn’t about architecture and clarity: it was about sublime feeling, music that leaves the instrument behind and melts into the human heart. Later, I bought the track online, and it is even better than it sounded in the car. What a perfect complement to the dignified intelligence and wit of Ucbasaran, and what a way to welcome in spring: with an abundance of Liszt and so many interpretations to enjoy.