American Record GuideLiszt: Operatic Fantasies
Bartok: 2-Piano Suite
American Record Guide
July/August 2012, vol. 75, no. 4

We all have our favorite recordings; and fortunately, over the years, as new technologies evolve, most have been remastered and released again, often with better sonics than before. When this arrived for review, it was actually hard to contain myself. One of my all-time favorites is this Connoisseur Society Liszt recording from the early 1970s of four operatic fantasies arranged by the composer for two pianists.

Liszt's two greatest opera-based works, Reminiscences de Don Juan and Reminiscences de Norma are performed at two pianos. Reminiscences de La Sonnambula and Chernomor's March from Ruslan and Ludmilla are four hands at one piano. The 48-minute Advent chrome cassette I purchased sometime in the late 1970s is the last time these remarkable recordings were available, until now. To make this a full length CD, a VARA radio (Holland) broadcast performance (October 20, 1970) of the Bartok Suite has been added. The repertoire here was almost without any other recordings back when they were released. Today, with the single exception of Liszt's two-piano arrangement of Reminiscences de Don Juan, the works here still have few recordings for comparison, and the ones I know of are of no competition to these.

I found it interesting to research these performances on the internet. Back in the 1970s a rather staid British reviewer called the Contiguglia brothers "Ashkenazy multiplied by two", and admonished the reader to purchase this recording immediately rather effusive, but I fully agree. The Sonnambula  duet alone is worth the price of the disc. Maurice Hinson, in his reference work on piano duet repertoire calls it the most exacting work in the piano duet literature. It took me a a long time to secure a copy of the score, and I whole-heartedly agree with him. Because of note doublings in both parts, each is nearly as difficult as the entire two-hand version of this opera fantasy. When combined, you add the need to choreograph the four hands on almost every page which hands goes over or under the other in texture. The results here are spectacular.

The Bartok Suite is a new work to me, and my first thought is why? I see new duo piano recital recordings all the time, and many supply yet one more performance of Lutoslawski's enjoyable Paganini Variations. Why haven't a few duos researched repertoire from the 20th Century and found this great work? Bartok clearly saw the musical value of his early Suite, Op. 4 for orchestra from 1905-07 . In 1941, specifically for two-piano recital repertoire for himself and his wife, Ditta Pasztorzy, he made this arrangement. Three of its four movements are lyrical, with influences of folk material, impressionism, and orientalism. The Allegro Diabolico is a ferocious, driving, and dissonant movement in sonata form, but with a lot of contrapuntal writing. As with the Liszt, the Contiguglia brothers give a knock-out performance. Even though this was done in concert (or in broadcast as it were), I never heard a false not or ensemble problem. The Bartok's recorded sound is not at the same high level as the Liszt (done by legendary engineer Alan Silver), but it is fully acceptable.

If you enjoy this kind of music at all, you owe it to yourself to seek out this recording performances of this caliber are quite rare.

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