Evocative, technically formidable piano transcriptions of the Romantic era take the lion’s share of “Romantic Piano Voices”, Mariam Batsashvili’s second solo album for Warner Classics. Her first album, a programme of Liszt and Chopin, led Gramophone to conclude that “The Georgian-born pianist leaves nothing to be desired in the generous warmth of her interpretations,” while the Observer felt that “Her technical prowess and ability to negotiate Liszt’s showy grandeur is a given, but her sense of his inner world, his wistful, nonchalant poetry sets her apart as one to watch.”
Liszt, a composer of special importance to the Georgian-born pianist, is again prominent on “Romantic Piano Voices”. Here she realises his pianistic vision of music from operas (Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Gounod’s Faust), of songs by Schubert, of his own haunting song Die Lorelei, and complements it with his aptly named Valse de bravoure. Liszt’s contemporary and virtuoso rival, Sigismund Thalberg, is represented with another work of operatic inspiration, the spectacular ‘Grand Caprice’ on themes from Bellini’s La sonnambula. A celebrated pianist of a later generation, the British-born Harold Bauer (1873-1951), supplies a transcription of a work conceived for organ, César Franck’s Prélude, Fugue et Variation op 18, and the album is rounded out with two further waltzes, by Chopin and Schubert.
“Through Batsashvili, Liszt speaks to a new generation,” Pianist magazine has written. It was in 2014, when she won the 10th Franz Liszt Piano Competition in Utrecht, that Mariam Batsashvili first gained major international recognition, though she had already triumphed in the 2011 International Franz Liszt Competition for Young Pianists. That event took place in Weimar, the German city which held such an important place in Liszt’s life and career. Batsashvili trained at its Franz Liszt Conservatory, following earlier studies in her native Tbilisi. The composer first caught her imagination when, as she entered her teens, she began to tackle his ‘grande étude de Paganini’, La campanella: “I knew that the Liszt I imagined in my head was one that is not heard from many pianists,” she has said. “There is so much more to Liszt in his music than just his virtuosity … Whether he was making transcriptions of operatic arias or art songs, he set out to evoke the feelings of the original work’s dramatic and poetic worlds without any exaggeration, and in my view he succeeded in this with great strength and truth.
“In his transcriptions, he aspired to conjure up the sentiments and styles of the composers’ treatments of the poetic texts that had inspired them. Liszt wanted the piano to describe all these situations and feelings, and this is why he wrote the transcriptions exactly in the way that he did, because he knew that the piano can achieve them – if it is played as he indicated.
Batsashvili points out that Liszt can suggest the sounds of an orchestra in his operatic paraphrases, even evoking “the energy of the whole universe” in his version of Wagner’s sublime Liebestod. Harold Bauer’s skilful transcription of Franck’s organ work successfully “creates the illusion of an organ in a church acoustic ... Bauer realised that if you touch the bass notes on the piano in the appropriate way they can easily sound like an organ … and you can explore an organ-like texture in your contact with the piano keyboard … You can produce a great many very different colours and textures just by touching the keyboard in different ways. When I play this piece, at times I almost feel that I’m in a big church, with people praying …There is sadness in it, but also hope, and for me, most of all a feeling of making peace with life.”
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