On the Short Liszt of the Year’s Best

Of course I can’t pass up an opportunity to create a terrible pun, and in this case it’s apt. Yes, it’s the 200th anniversary of virtuoso pianist and underrated composer Franz Liszt, and the music world is being inundated by recitals and recordings. Naturally, it’s easy to be jaded about anything Lisztian under the circumstances, so I’m pleased to report that last night’s recital of some of the composer’s barnburners at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church in Manhattan (about a 5 minute walk from Lincoln Center) was one of the best programs I’ve seen all year. And the artist is a name you’re unlikely to know, but should.

There’s been a strong buzz on the pianophile circuit about the program’s artist, Italian pianist Sandro Russo, and judging from his performance it’s fully justified. Not only is he equipped with the requisite technical chops to pull off Liszt’s music, but he also has a shrewd sense of both dramatic pacing and when to turn on the “piano playing”.

Bénédiction de Dieu dans le solitude and the too-rarely-heard Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth both took on the character of symphonic poems invoking both the Romantic notion of religious spirituality and an aural panorama of the places at which the works were written, estate at Voronivtsi and cloister at Nonnenwerth, and Russo brought to Liszt’s transcription of Ave Maria unexpected grandeur, a refreshing change of pace from too-frequently predictable and sentimentalized renditions of this Liszt favorite.

The big opera paraphrases on Bellini’s Norma and Mozart’s Don Giovanni were even more impressive. Russo dispatched the daunting arpeggios with devil-may-care aplomb, yet kept them in dynamic check, letting the “big tunes” do the musical talkin’ — and bringing equal parts substance and tuneful entertainment and to these virtuoso crowdpleasers.

Russo will be playing at Christ Church, Staten Island on October 30th, and if you’re in the New York area, you’d be making a mistake not to grab the ferry and check it out. I’ll be there. At any rate, if you have an opportunity to hear Sandro Russo, don’t miss it.

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