What better way to celebrate becoming an octogenarian than having a CD released filled with a re-mastered (Silas Brown has done a superb job of muting the notorious RCA vinyl hiss) collection of performances from mid-career. Jerome Lowenthal’s mastery of the fiendishly difficult opera paraphrases from Franz Liszt ought to become required listening for pianists (and their repertoire-driven agents) who pride themselves more on their fingers than their souls as well as any music lovers interested in stretching their own imaginations into the realm of seemingly impossible reductions of such massive scores.
The first six items were originally recorded in 1981. The “Rigoletto Quartet” leads off this array of pianistic novelties where Lowenthal immediately displays his dramatic sense and incredible dexterity. The closing section has just the right amount of coy, setting up the thundering finish with a knowing hand.
While Aida’s “Danza Sacra e Duetto Final” cries for its orchestral garb, it is still a marvel of control and delicacy. The deliciously dark, lugubrious “Miserere” very occasionally suffers from a lack of consistent direction in the 32nds accompaniment but that quibble is readily quashed by a fine “rumble” masterfully balancing the vrai cantabile that makes all that preceded it well worth the wait/weight.
Lowenthal weaves an intriguingly flexible web of art in Wagner’s “Spinning Song”; the haunting returns of the Dutchman’s motif are simply delectable. “Réminiscences de Boccanegra” features wonderfully liquid legato, feverish drama and an oh-so-appropriate smidgeon of the Hungarian master’s first piano concerto: a fine example of art imitates art. Some surprisingly brittle attacks in the closing measures likely have their source in the instrument (few can keep their “cool” throughout such an enormous workout) and long-past recording techniques that are beyond the passionate practitioner’s control.
Least successful of the group is Wagner’s miracle of energy, Lohengrin’s Act III Prelude. There are just too many memories of the brilliant orchestration—some of which also fall into the same trap of leading with the triplets rather than consistently using them as means to an end. Nonetheless, the “middle section” offers a perfectly dreamy “Wedding March” that won’t leave consciousness anytime soon.
Thirteen years later, Lowenthal serves up a spectacular array of colours, tone and touches in Busoni’s Chamber Fantasy on Bizet’s Carmen. With an ambiance that has more all-around depth than the previous tracks, Don José’s aria is deeply moving while the famous Habañera has seldom been so discreet. The “Prélude” is the only section that fails to convince, requiring a lot more lift to bring up the curtain on the Spanish tale of life, love and loss.
The two bonus tracks reveal Lowenthal at his affable best, having fun with his audience while never failing to let his art slip into parody. Somewhere, Victor Borge is smiling too. JWR