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Deutsche Grammophon’s 10-CD Liszt Legacy may be the strangest release of the recently concluded Liszt bicentennial. There’s almost no music by Liszt and only one of the five pianists – Claudio Arrau, through his teacher Martin Krause – has any connection to him.

The guiding principle of this collection was apparently to cull the archives of the Westminster and American Decca labels for the long-out-of-print performances that might be the most attractive to an assured audience of piano aficionados (DG’s only miscalculation seems to be that it failed to recognise that De Larrocha’s earliest recordings of Spanish repertory, once issued on American Decca, are the same recordings that for several years have been, and remain, widely available on EMI).

But if The Liszt Legacy does not tell us much about the composer its title celebrates, it is nonetheless an important historical release. The two most significant discs in the collection are those devoted to Arrau. In the early 1950s, he had a short-lived association with American Decca. Left unreleased when it ended were recordings of five Beethoven sonatas and Chopin’s F minor Fantasy. I usually find Arrau’s Chopin too sober for my taste and this F minor Fantasy is no exception, but the Beethoven sonatas – particularly a gloriously beautiful ‘Appassionata’ and an intense and energetic ‘Hammerklavier’ – are another matter. In these performances, Arrau combines philosophical gravitas, which he sometimes over-indulged in the Beethoven he recorded in later years for EMI and Philips, with the fiery temperament and glistening virtuosity that characterises recordings made in his early years.

Collector-item status alone does not always make out-of-print material deserve to be reissued. Before the release of The Liszt Legacy, the Westminster LPs, which are the source for the two CDs of Lewenthal’s performances, had such status. That’s because the name of Raymond Lewenthal (1923-1988), largely forgotten today, loomed large among the young piano aficionados of the 1960s and early 70s. It was Lewenthal, in the recordings he made – beginning in 1964 and continuing for more than a decade thereafter for what were then the RCA and Columbia labels – who introduced a generation to the strange, often electrifying music of Alkan, to many then-neglected works by Liszt and to forgotten Romantic-era composers such as Henselt and Schwarenka. The Liszt Legacy captures Lewenthal somewhat earlier (1957) in performances of Scriabin, in a collection of Toccatas and in encore pieces. He was a fine pianist, but these are not the recordings that made him important. His well- played Scriabin, for example, sounds bloodless compared with the recordings then being made in the Soviet Union by the likes of Sofronitsky, Richter, Merzhanov and Feinberg. Unlike the other four pianists in The Liszt Legacy, Lewenthal was not great – merely good.

It was in the early 1960s that many of the last great representatives of Romantic piano playing, musicians who had been trained in the late 19th century and reached maturity before the First World War, were exiting the stage. One of the greatest was Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963), who made Schumann sing, who played Chopin with elegance, virtuosity and feeling and who performed Beethoven with power that never eschewed feline grace or beauty of sound. His greatest recordings were made on 78-rpm discs and nearly all are available on CD. Unlike his almost exact contemporary Arthur Rubinstein, Moiseiwitsch did not enjoy an extended and glorious Indian summer. Persistent health problems compromised his once impregnable technique and slowed his swiftness. But he retained the extraordinary beauty of his sound and his mastery of colour and rhythm. Those qualities make the performances of Schumann and Beethoven in this collection – all of them dating from Moiseiwitsch’s last studio sessions in 1961 – memorably lovely.

Egon Petri (1881-1962), another great pianist who passed into history at about the same time, enjoyed the peak of his fame before the Second World War. The Dutch pianist was a fervent anti-fascist who escaped the Nazis by emigrating to the US just as war broke out in Europe. There, however, he was never as celebrated as he had been in Europe, where he was regarded as the equal of Horowitz and Backhaus in terms of his all-encompassing technique and considered to rival Schnabel in terms of intellect. But his performances here – all of them dating from Petri’s last years – show that his technique remained superlative. His performance of Busoni’s version of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz – recorded in 1957 when the pianist was 76 – is simply fabulous; it makes the most famous version of the piece, recorded by Horowitz 20 years later when he was 76, sound puny by comparison.

STEPHEN WIGLER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2012 - ©Rhinegold Publishing