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The story of Angelo Villani’s return to the concert stage, after two decades of a seemingly incurable condition, has been well publicised. In his first recording, entitled Dante’s Inferno, he takes nothing for granted as he recreates Liszt’s glory as very possibly the greatest of all pianists as well as one of the supreme geniuses of the 19th century. True, his strong-arm tactics will send timid souls running for cover, but his raging virtuosity (inspired by the pianist Ervin Nyiregyházi) is motivated by a deeply personal sense that too many of today’s pianists have lost the art of vivid communication, retreating all too easily into academic blankness and convention.

Nadia Boulanger’s claim, as grand-mère of the Leeds Piano Competition, that she was looking for ‘character’ and ‘personality’ was surely a thin veil for rigid classical notions of propriety and ‘correctness.’ From Villani the very opening of the Dante Sonata is heavily inflected in grand, quasi-operatic style and, throughout, he lifts Liszt’s already searing rhetoric to another level, bearing down with a ferocious intensity.

Villani’s arrangements of Purcell and Hans von Bülow are movingly declaimed, and his way with Liszt’s ‘Sunt lacrimae rerum’ from Années de pèlerinage has an outsize sense of tortured Catholicism. His concluding Tristan fantasy sets the keyboard ablaze with colour and excitement, witness to a pianist who, by his own admission, prefers a ‘hell-for-leather approach’ to caution. Finely recorded, this is glorious thrown-back playing with a vengeance.

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2016 - ©Rhinegold Publishing