FRANZ LISZT (1811 – 1886) and GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Complete Paraphrases and Free Transcriptions (Arrangements of music from Aida, Don Carlos, Ernani, I Lombardi alla prima crociata, Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra, Il trovatore, and Messa da Requiem)—Rinaldo Zhok, piano [Recorded at Studio Odradek, 15 – 19 September 2013; Odradek ODRCD309; 1CD, 76:23; Available from Amazon, iTunes, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]
From a literary perspective, perhaps the most difficult and thankless tasks in the art of letters are those of translating the works of great writers. In so many cases, both poetry and prose are dependent upon the nuances of context and meaning unique to their vernaculars, and only an artist with gifts equal to those of the original writer can hope to replicate in like form the endemic qualities of a gem of one language in the different mechanics of another. The spirit of language is in inflection and interpretation of subtleties, and too many translations lose this spirit in salvos of words. So, too, is the ethos of a piece of music easily muted or obscured altogether when it is arranged—or translated, as it were—for forces other than those for which it was composed. On these grounds alone, his Paraphrases and Transcriptions of themes from the operas of Giuseppe Verdi erase any thoughts that Franz Liszt was not an important composer but merely a legendary virtuoso. In these pieces, the soul of Verdi emanates from the music more authentically than in many performances of his own operas. Liszt was not solely a wily craftsman as generations of miscomprehension have suggested: in his concert arrangements of Verdi's music, he accomplished the remarkable feat of conveying via the piano's eighty-eight keys the dramatic weight, suspense, harmonic richness, and glorious bel canto of the Italian composer's emblematic scores. Make no mistake, however: these are fearsomely virtuosic pieces in which Liszt exploited the full scope of his volcanic pianism. Many pianists can play the works on this disc, but only artists whose fingers are but a single component of their techniques can truly perform them. Born in Trieste, where Verdi's Il corsaro and Stiffelio were first performed, young pianist Rinaldo Zhok has by right of birth the suave sophistication and native absorption of Italian slancio required to commune with the soul of Verdi, and his playing on this disc—brilliantly recorded by Odradek—reveals that he also has mastered the technical alchemy needed to do full justice to the music of Liszt.
Beginning with the stinging 'Coro di festa e Marcia funebre' from Don Carlos (R. 268, S. 435), in which the solemn monastic procession is juxtaposed with the ferocious bloodlust of the Auto-da-fé, Mr. Zhok immediately discloses the comprehensiveness of his artistry. He plays the principal theme of the chorus with frenzied power that contrasts meaningfully with the lugubrious, almost awkward rhythmic squareness of the march. The scene in the opera is an evocative exposition of Verdi's suspicion and overt distrust of the Church, of course, but the clarity which which Mr. Zhok depicts this in Liszt's arrangement is unexpected. Then, the delicacy with which he plays the transcription of Viclinda’s preghiera 'Salve Maria! … di grazie il petto' from I Lombardi alla prima crociata—or, in the form with which Liszt would have been acquainted, Jérusalem (First version; R. 264, S. 431)—delves straightaway into the lyrical heart of the music, the arching melodic line typical of the young Verdi unfurled with grace that does not obscure the wizardry of Liszt’s rendering of the accompaniment. The most familiar of Liszt’s Verdi arrangements, the ‘Paraphrase de concert’ from Rigoletto (R. 267, S. 434) is a reimagining of the great Quartet, 'Bella figlia dell'amore,’ and the inventiveness with which Liszt differentiates the four very distinct vocal lines in his setting is indicative of a thorough comprehension of Verdi’s compositional idiom. Mr. Zhok’s playing of the Rigoletto Paraphrase is similarly indicative of an insightful response to the sensual interplay of melodies. Caressing the phrase in which, in the opera, the Duca di Mantova ascends to top B♮, Mr. Zhok also takes care to infuse Maddalena’s and Rigoletto’s lines with appropriate emphases, highlighting the free-spiritedness of the seductress and the jester’s anger and paternal affection. Gilda’s growing heartbreak radiates from Mr. Zhok’s idiomatic phrasing. Both of the Paraphrases from Ernani are delivered with energy that mimics the dramatic impetus that the opera can generate in performance. The chorus from the Act One Finale adapted in Liszt’s first Ernani Paraphrase (R. 293, S. 431a) is majestically represented, Mr. Zhok’s playing aptly imparting the atmosphere of the scene and overcoming the slight heavy-handedness of Liszt’s arrangement. The second of the Ernani pieces (R. 265, S. 432) draws on Carlo's aria 'Oh, de' verd'anni miei' and the subsequent chorus from Act Three, some of the most searching music composed by Verdi in the first decade of his career, and the sensitivity with which Mr. Zhok plays Liszt’s thoughtfully-shaped arrangement of it accentuates the dignity of the dramatic utterance. The 'Miserere' from Il trovatore (R. 266, S. 433) is one of the most strikingly innovative scenes in any of Verdi’s operas, the tension perpetuated by Leonora’s agitated lines interchanging with the offstage singing of Manrico and the choral incantation of ‘Miserere d’un’alma già vicina’ building to an inflamed climax. As in the Rigoletto Paraphrase, the deftness with which Liszt emphasizes each element of the Trovatore scene without forfeiting the broader structure of the music is notable. The bristling potency with which Mr. Zhok plays the lines to which Leonora sings ‘Di te, di te scordarmi’ is sublime, and the clear-headedness of his playing produces a completely satisfying performance of this compelling piece as a whole. In the ‘Réminiscences de Boccanegra’ (R. 271, S. 438), the last of his arrangements of Verdi’s music, Liszt achieved a distinguished elegance, and Mr. Zhok’s delivery of the gossamer figurations of the opera’s beautiful but unnerving Prelude—the sort of music that sounds deceptively simple—is exquisite. In the Prelude’s repetitive blocks of melody, Verdi managed to depict so much of the emotional sweep of Simon Boccanegra, and both Liszt and Mr. Zhok accomplish this in the ‘Réminiscences.’ The 'Danza sacra e Duetto finale' from Aida (R. 269, S. 436) combines the dance of the priestesses in the Temple of Vulcan in Act One with Aida’s and Radamès’s 'O terra, addio.’ Mr. Zhok revels in Verdi’s pseudo-exotic harmonies in the dance, but the real joy of his playing—and, indeed, one of the most superb pleasures of an exceptional disc—is the radiance of his phrasing of ‘O terra, addio.’ The lilting phrases are floated with a poise that audiences long to hear in the voices of sopranos and tenors who sing Aida and Radamès, and Mr. Zhok’s command of dynamics is ruminatively exercised. Virtuosity in the service of contemplative expression is also at the core of Mr. Zhok’s playing of the disc’s bonus track, Liszt’s arrangement of the 'Agnus dei' from the Messa da requiem (R. 270, S. 436). The emotion of the music passes from the soul of Verdi, through the mind of Liszt, to the hands of Mr. Zhok.
Like the finest translations of literature, Franz Liszt’s paraphrases and transcriptions of the music of Giuseppe Verdi are appreciable works in their own right and possess their own unique life. Unfortunately, the ill-conceived notion of these pieces being shallow vehicles for egotistical maneuvering by opportunistic pianists persists. The playing of Rinaldo Zhok on this disc should contribute to the erosion of these prejudices. Only a prodigiously-gifted composer could arrange the music of Verdi with such fidelity to the original sources, and only a pianist with equal virtuosity and emotive loquacity can perform these pieces with the volubility they deserve. This is a special disc, and the performances on it declare that Rinaldo Zhok is a special pianist.