The Romantics of the Modern Age

Liszt and Paganini were too late for records so we will never know how they sounded. But did they have any imitators? Michael Tanner listens to more recent artists on disc who come close to the true romantic performance.

We have no first-hand check on whether Liszt’s or Paganini’s playing was more extraordinary than anyone else because nothing of their playing survives on disc. But we can hear many of Liszt’s pupils; there are records of their playing and some of piano rolls made by them, which can be transferred in the best sound. As you might expect the playing shows enormous rhythmic licence, a staggering dynamic range, and a cavalier attitude towards what was written, in the interests of maximum excitement and overt expressiveness. It was characteristic of the heyday of romanticism to regard everything as telling a story, and in some of the recordings of Vladimir de Pachmann he actually pauses to tell us what the next bit means! While listening to many of these performers is a weird experience, it is often a breathtaking one too, and it would be a serious mistake to think that they weren’t serious. Many present-day connoisseurs of the piano regard Rachmaninov as the greatest of all recorded pianists, and he takes liberties that no pianist today would dare to. Compared to these ‘piano tigers’, as they were known, almost no-one shows more than moderate inclinations in the direction of that kind of playing.

The five top recorded romantics
1. Sergei Rachmaninov’s playing of Chopin’s Sonata in B flat minor shows the romantic school at its most imaginative, and nowhere more than in the Funeral March, in which Chopin’s indications of dynamics are ignored so that Rachmaninov can give the impression of a funeral cortège advancing from the distance, arriving on the scene with overpowering dramatic effect, and then withdrawing.

2. Fritz Kreisler, whose violin tone is the envy and despair of all other violinists, often composed works which he passed off as those of the great dead. He was more concerned to charm than to stun, and his 1935 recording of the Mendelssohn Concerto shows him both submitting to the greatness of this work, and impressing his own inimitable sweetness on it.

3. William Mengelberg was one of the greatest of the romantic school of conductors. He played his orchestra as though it were an instrument. Mahler regarded him as the finest interpreter of his works, but it is in Tchaikovsky’s last two symphonies that we can hear him at his most impassioned, producing the paradox of seeming to let them play themselves, at the same time as he is exercising absolute control over the minutest effect. They remain incredible, indispensable performances.

4. Fyodor Chaliapin. Singers have always been exhibitionists, which may be why there is not a school of romantic singing, in the way there is of playing. But Chaliapin, the amazing Russian bass who acted with his voice to a degree no-one else has even attempted, may be the nearest thing. In his live recordings of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, large parts of which survive, he even makes up some of the text as he goes along. The effect is overpowering, sweeping aside all doubts, many times larger than life, in the best tradition.

5. Shura Cherkassky. Few artists today have the temperament, though many the technique, to risk comparison with their forebears. Cherkassky does, which may be why the critical fraternity seems embarrassed by him. Listen to him launching into an outrageous arrangement of a Strauss waltz and you’ll hear the real thing: he is also capable of great performances of works which are demanding in a quite different way.

Classic CD magazine, 1995

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