Liszt: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Totentanz

Eldar Nebolsin; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko (Naxos 8.570517)

9 November 2008 3.5 stars

LisztThe Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Vasily Petrenko (appointed Principal Conductor in 2006) have only recently joined Naxos's roster of artists and this disc follows hot on the heels of a well-received 'Manfred' Symphony. However here in Liszt's two piano concertos they have to cede some of the limelight to the young Spanish-based, Uzbek-born virtuoso Eldar Nebolsin
It's clear from the start that these are no-nonsense performances and Nebolsin's opening statements in the first concerto establish an immediate feeling of authority: in his firm hands the big rhetorical gestures are resolute and the double octaves thunder reassuringly. There's a slight feeling early on that he seems less willing to take time in the lyrical moments but there's no denying the healthy, full-bodied virtuosity on show.

Any early doubts about the pianist's poetic ability are allayed by his beautifully expansive way with the long line of the first concerto's Quasi adagio. Ther trills leading into the Allegretto vivace sound a little laboured but that section has a wonderfully scherzando feel with Nebolsin tapping into the music's capricious vein.

The recapitulation of the big opening statement sweeps all before it and, with Petrenko driving the RLPO hard, there's a real feeling of genuine excitement. In the final movement, Nebolsin's technique is wonderfully robust, although again there are times when one wishes for a lighter touch in Liszt's more mercurial writing.

Nebolsin takes a couple of minutes to find his form in the Second Concerto. For me he misses some of the feeling of dreamy romanticism in the arpeggiated figures early on, is excessively forceful and lumpy when he takes up the theme himself briefly and sounds a little deliberate when he starts his meandering right hand idea at 2'34. However, he hits his stride when the terse triplet accompaniment figure is introduced, finding a rare single-mindedness at this fast pace, setting the tone for a blistering Allegro agitato assai.

The central Allegro moderato sees Nebolsin capturing the lyrical vein with greater success, helped by some lovely work from the RLPO's soloists (the principal cello in particular), and the brief cadenza leading to the Allegro deciso is breathtaking. The rest of the concerto is performed with an edge-of-the-seat quality that might lack subtlety but delivers all the thrills one could hope for, the final Allegro animato in particular.

There's more of the same in the Totentanz which is provided as a generous filler. Nebolsin dutifully delivers the fistfuls of notes with fearsome virtuosity and Petrenko gets some powerful results from the RLPO. It's not just about the notes, though, and there's some unusually well characterised playing in the first variation, for example, and there's no lack of reverie in the beautiful slow variation around six minutes in. The repeated note fugato variation is drilled out with an eye-watering digital strength that is employed to equally impressive effect in the double octaves and glissandi that pepper the final couple of minutes.

Although this CD is less about the RLPO and Petrenko than Nebolsin, it shows them all in exciting form and the performances are well captured in naturally balanced sound by Naxos's engineers. This is a recommendable release at budget price, even in such a crowded field.  

By Hugo Shirley