CD Review: FIORENTINO PLAYS LISZT: Selections (Sergio Fiorentino)

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by Tony Frankel on February 26, 2018

in CD-DVD,Music


His astounding musical insights turned the most well-known works into a brand new revelation, and his ken of composers from Chopin to Bach to Schumann to Scriabin was nearly unparalleled. But when this amazing Italian pianist died suddenly and painlessly at his home in 1998 at the age of 69, his fame had never reached the level of his skill. And when you listen to a 2-CD selection of Sergio Fiorentino’s previously issued recordings of Liszt from 1958-1962 — just released on Urania Records — the first thing you will wonder after beholding that dazzling technique and interpretation is: Why wasn’t he better known?

From the Independent‘s obituary: “A critic wrote recently that Fiorentino’s life appeared to consist of a hard luck history “that nearly outshines Shine,” but that is true only insofar that Fiorentino was badly hurt in an air crash in 1954 which put a temporary end to illustrious engagements throughout Europe and America at a time when he was being described as the most promising pianist of his generation. His later decision to remove himself entirely from public performance until the end of his life, while complex, was entirely his own and one he did not appear to regret.”

On Disc One, he plays Liszt’s most technically intricate works with delicacy and beauty while capturing the subtle, meditative side in all nine pieces that make up Première année: Suisse (First Year: Switzerland), S.160, the first of Liszt’s three suites, Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage). Also on the first disc are all six solo compositions that make up The Consolations (the individual movements are not listed in the CD’s extraordinarily cheap liner notes, which give no information on Fiorentino or the recordings except the year they were made). These miniature gems sound utterly refined and poetic in the Neopolitan’s hands, and with the gently meditative #1 and the sorrowful lyricism of the Chopin-like #3, there is an entrancing magic of sound, which seems to ascend and float like delicate incense (which is also achieved in the first movement of Switzerland, “William Tell’s Hat,” which is one of the longest versions I have heard, but never feels draggy).

Fiorentino avoids all the bombast and fireworks that can make you feel Liszt-less when listening to so many modern showy players, whose performances say more about them than the composer. There’s a selflessness even in the six selected Hungarian Rhapsodies, which never get distorted because there’s nothing mannered or overdone — it’s straight from the heart and heart-pounding at the same time. Fiorentino’s facile facility with Liszt’s many, many, many notes is complemented by his capacity to convey the composer’s blatant theatricality with composure and confidence. As a result, the Hungarian Rhapsodies have more shade and nuance than ever – no one will think of these oft-played pieces as mere virtuoso thistledown again.

Following the Rhapsodies is one selection from the 12 Études d’exécution transcendante: No. 4, “Mazeppa.” The piece is audacious: Not only does it present challenges for physical stamina and dexterity, but there’s a huge range of sonorities in this evolution of musical fantasy. Here, the performer and the work become one. “Mazeppa” is an impressive tone poem, inspired by a Victor Hugo poem about a rider strapped to a horse, Fiorentino nails those fat arpeggiated chords, and the thematic triads played by both hands on top of a sequence of ascending double thirds that fall between the beats. It’s an eight-minute thrill ride.

Completing the second CD, Fiorentino — backed by Erich Riede conducting the NDR Symphony Orchestra — plays the First Piano Concerto’s dazzling piano lines with energy and flexibility; in particular, he offers a bracingly large, brilliant sound in Liszt’s showier passages and striking delicacy in its more introspective ones (this was recorded in 1958). He handles well the various challenges of this virtuosic work. Especially wonderful are the pianissimo passages, as the lyrical parts of this concerto are just as difficult for the player.

Fiorentino is one of the 20th century’s greatest piano players, and this is a worthy, varied collection of Liszt compositions. What a shame that — along with the uninformative packaging — no efforts have been made to digitize these pressings, which — while a bit muddy — are better than none.

Fiorentino Plays Liszt
Urania Records
2-CDs | 23 tracks | 134:59
released January 8, 2018
available at Naxos and Amazon

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