Franz Liszt divides opinion. For some he is regarded as one of the greatest pianist-composers of the Romantic era; for others, he is a showman and a charlatan who wrote vulgar, showy music.
In fact, he was a remarkable musician and human being. Sure, as a performer he could be flamboyant and extravagant in his gestures, but he helped shape the modern solo piano concert as we know it today and he also brought a great deal of music to the public realm through his transcriptions (he transcribed Beethoven’s symphonies for solo piano, thus making this repertoire accessible to both concert artists and amateur pianists to play at home). He was an advocate of new music and up-and-coming composers and lent his generous support to people like Richard Wagner (who married Liszt’s daughter Cosima).
His piano music combines technical virtuosity and emotional depth. It’s true that some of his output is showy – all virtuosic flourishes for the sake of virtuosity – but his suites such as the Années de Pèlerinage or the Transcendental Etudes, and his transcriptions of Schubert songs demonstrate the absolute apogee of art, poetry, and beauty combined.
Martha Argerich brings fire and fluency to her interpretations, underpinned by a remarkable technical assuredness. Her 1972 recording of the B-minor Sonata and Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 is regarded as “legendary”.
Franz Liszt: 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies, S244/R106: No. 6 in D-Flat Major (Martha Argerich, piano)
Australian Leslie Howard is the only pianist to have recorded the solo piano music of Liszt, a project which includes some 300 premiere recordings, and he is rightly regarded as a specialist of this repertoire who has brought much of Liszt’s lesser-known music to the fore.
Leslie Howard Plays Liszt’s Romancero espagnol, S695c
Berman’s 1977 recording of the Années de Pèlerinage remains the benchmark recording of this repertoire for many. Berman brings sensibility and grandeur, warm-heartedness, and mastery to this remarkable set of pieces.
Franz Liszt: Annees de pelerinage, 2nd year, Italy, S161/R10b – No. 5. Sonetto 104 del Petrarca (Sonnet 104 of Petrarch) (Lazar Berman, piano)
Winner of the 2021 Leeds International Piano Competition, the young Armenian pianist Alim Beisembayev’s debut recording of the complete Transcendental Etudes is remarkable for its spellbinding polish, precision, and musical maturity, all supported by superb technique.
Alim Beisembayev Plays Liszt’s 12 Études d’exécution transcendante, S. 139: No. 2, Fusées
Yuja Wang has been praised for her breath-taking interpretations of Liszt’s First Piano Concerto which combine force and filigree, emotional depth, and technical mastery to create thrilling and insightful performances.
Yuja Wang Plays Liszt’s First Piano Concerto in E flat
Other noted Liszt pianists include Georges Cziffra, Jorge Bolet, Krystian Zimerman, Lang Lang, Daniil Trifonov, Sviatoslav Richter, Marc-André Hamelin, Nelson Freire, Claudio Arrau, and Vladimir Horowitz.
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Franz Liszt: 3 odes funebres, S112/R429: No. 2. La notte, S699/R664 (Krystian Zimerman, piano)
If you will allow, please throw into the ring of very great Liszt players, Alfred Brendel, great Liszt piano and Orchestra recordings with Haitink on Philips, great Annees de Pelerinage, and Dante Sonata and just Sonata in b minor …..second pianist Michele Campanela, Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies and Transcriptions, on Philips as well….there, your list of great Liszt players and recordings just got much richer