Liszt/Schubert Yes! -- Godowsky/Strauss ... Uh...Well
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 10/24/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This package actually contains two discs: the DVD-Video containing Godowsky transcriptions of music by Johann Strauss Jr, and Liszt transcriptions of Schubert Songs, as well as (although not listed here by Amazon) a bonus DVD-Audio of Schliessmann playing all the Chopin Ballades, the F Minor Fantaisie, the Barcarolle and the Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat. The Chopin program is available separately as an SACD from Bayer Records (ASIN B0000E69HB here at Amazon). The DVD-Audio then concludes with a DVD-Video selection where we see an artsy-fartsy video of the pianist playing the 3-minute Chopin Waltz in C Sharp Minor, Op. 64, No. 2. The playing is excellent, but the multiple views of the pianist's hands projected on various surfaces along with other rather tiresome video tricks detracts from the music.
I'd been hearing lots of good things about fortyish German pianist Burkard Schliessmann who studied with, among others, Shura Cherkassky and who has been racking up rave reviews for earlier performances and CDs, none of which I'd heard. I'm pleased to say that the enthusiasm has been well-founded. However ... my first impression, beginning as I did with the big Godowsky/Strauss 'symphonic metamorphosis' on 'Die Fledermaus,' was that although Schliessmann is a conscientious artist with big technique, the 'Fledermaus' comes across as cautious, dry, academic and, worse, no fun. Repeated watching/listening did not dispel that impression. Things got better and more gemütlich with 'Alt-Wien' and 'Wienerisch,' but the impression returned with the other big Strauss 'metamorphosis,' 'Ein Künstlerleben' ('An Artist's Life'). I know that part of the let-down is that, for me, Godowsky's pieces tend to flag, but still I had the impression that Schliessmann was somehow being more 'correct' than musical.
Fortunately, things got very much better with the Liszt/Schubert transcriptions. 'Die Forelle' ('The Trout') leaps out of the water with brio. 'Auf dem Wasser zu singen' is a wonder of lyricism, and in particular I was impressed with Schliessmann's control and shaping of the melody in the tenor register that is divided between right and left thumbs. His performances of the Shakespeare 'Ständchen' ('Hark, hark the lark!') and the piece known always in English as 'Schubert's Lullaby' ('Leise flehen meine Lieder') are caressing and marvelously shaped. 'Aufenthalt' ('Resting Place') is intensely moving. Finally, 'Erlkönig' ('Erlking') is a marvel: those right hand triplets are not only killers, they are difficult to differentiate, and yet Schliessmann makes one forget the virtuosity and hear only the musical drama unfolding through his fingers. Bravo!
The recital on the DVD-Video was filmed in the golden Mendelssohn Saal of the Stadthalle in Wuppertal, Germany. His beautiful-toned Steinway is placed in the middle of a large parquet-floored ballroom and the camera zooms around and above him. We get lots of very close views of his hands, expertly chosen to reflect interesting things going on in the music and his technique such as, for instance, that difficult tenor melody in 'Auf dem Wasser zu singen.' We get almost no views of his pedaling, alas, and too many of the by-now-clichéd view of the pianist's head and shoulders reflected in the inner surface of the piano's lid.
The real excitement for me is the DVD-Audio disc devoted to Chopin's Ballades and more. Here is Chopin playing of real distinction. He manages to incorporate some of the delicacy of, say, a Perahia or Cortot, with the fire of a Rubinstein or Zimerman. I was particularly taken by the utter charm of the 'Barcarolle.' And I was able, on successive listenings, to focus on both the probing intellect and the emotionality inherent in the 'Ballades.' Superb Chopin!
So, what's a person to do? Well, if you're interested in SEEING Schliessmann and nowhere near where he is playing, this DVD package would be necessary. If you primarily want to HEAR his playing, I'd suggest you start with one of his CD or SACD releases. If you decided the DVD is not for you, you would be wise then to buy the Chopin SACD on Bayer.
One last comment: I did not play these discs on a surround sound system. What I heard was the plain-vanilla stereo layer. I was impressed enough to assume that it would be spectacular in surround sound.