European Piano Teachers Journal - Winter 2005 - Written by Malcolm Troup

Sonata in b minor; Don Juan Fantasy;
Mephisto Waltz
Medici Classics M30092

Already well-known for his matchless interpretations of the two Liszt Concertos and Totentanz with the Budapest Philharmonic on MONARCH CLASSICS, not to speak of his Transcendental Etudes on the same label, we have here Jerome Rose's final word on the subject of Liszt's supreme masterpiece, the Sonata in B minor, flanked by two of Liszt's most virtuoso creations, the Don Juan Fantasy and the Mephisto Waltz - for those who can bring it off, the equivalent of a pianistic triathlon. For long, the Sonata was considered a trophy recording - a status ­symbol for all world-beating virtuosi to covet - hence the reams of discs which abound. But Rose's version does not belong to this arriviste breed - rather it is the distillation of a lifetime's experience of playing a work to the point where the work becomes a rich surrogate for that life itself- a musical equivalent, minus the sensationalism, of what Oscar Wilde set out to explore in his story of Dorian Gray. The two, Rose's life and Liszt's sonata, have become as intertwined as a hand in a glove though whose the hand (Rose's?) and whose the glove (Liszt's?) have, considering the extraordinary aesthetic symbiosis achieved, become a moot question.

Where most pianists run amok with so many temptations to excess, Rose's long-breathed line and infallible sense of timing let everything fall into place as in an epic narrative. From the forebodingly long-drawn-out Wagnerian trombones of the opening Lento assai, he presents his five thematic protagonists, each set apart within its own time-frame - enough to identify it, leaving aside the melodic profile, in whatever guise it recurs, even when the motivic work is obscured in figuration. And yet these stammered cells with their respective pregnant pauses, once made known, can take off in the "sempre forte e agitato" at a speed-of-light and fluidity beggaring belief. Even the daunting octaves which follow cannot abate this forward drive and, for all their jagged passion, are as clean, accurate and scrupulously pedalled as any I have heard. Rose gives no quarter, unlike those pianists whose lack of long-term planning sags inevitably into sectionalisation, so goal-oriented is he in achieving Liszt's targets, from each of which he opens out to us a new landscape as fresh and challenging as the one before. The power and grandeur of his chordal-playing, so beautifully captured in this recording when it bursts upon us in the Grandioso or later in the Adagio, makes us hear homophony and polyphony as a pair of archetypal dualities which, like diatonicism and chromaticism, vie in their Faustian struggle for the soul of this sonata. Nowhere is this more starkly conveyed than in the alternating block-chords and pleading recit of the slow movement-an anvil chorus taking turns with a disembodied soprano voice.

A whole book could also be written about Rose's art of the transition - always concealing the seams of what for perfunctory pianists soon become sections - as when he veils with pedal the delicious melting into the Andante sostenuto in which he gives full value both to the turns, to the remonstrating Ieft hand, to the generous (sometimes overgenerous) arpeggiations and, above all, to the pearly portamenti which he shakes out of his sleeve with such consummate grace.

The Reminiscences of “Don Juan” - once considered the ne plus ultra of the 19th century pianist's bag of tricks – begins as if the Meyerbeer of Les Huguenots rather than Mozart had been its composer- no opera giocosa this but "grand opera" delivered on the "grand" piano in Rose's best "grand manner”. Indeed the opening verged on Grand Guignol with its denunciations from beyond the grave and sinister sliding octave scales, both diatonic and chromatic varieties, which must have served Liszt as the initial Mozartian inspiration for his own thundering interlocked octaves. In the same way, the duet lay-out of the middle section ("La ci darem la mano"), as well as giving the gallery something to whistle, allows Liszt, with Rose close behind, to take off to alternate extremes of the keyboard to maximum effect. Between them, they prolong the foreplay and postpone the consummation of this courtly seduction scene by endless roulades in alt., each one more corruscating than the last. At last, voices and bodies couple together in a tender Allegretto, soon to be curdled into a minor mode to herald a terrifying chromatic nemesis. With a flick of Rose's wrist, Liszt turns love (Var.I) into its opposite, war (Var.II) marked by military marches and swagger. It is at this point - bedevilled by the right-hand's scales in thirds - that tempo and tension somewhat slacken at the expense of the build-up to the Presto. For all that the Presto is flawlessly executed, some of the devil-may-care abandon is thus lost. But by the time the Commendatore puts in his last call for repentance to the miscreant Don, we are on our feet cheering Rose to the rafters.

Meanwhile Mephisto has been suffering reverses quite long enough! Now he mounts Rose like a Haitian voodoo deity, driving him to ever more risky feats of pianistic tight-rope-walking. If anything, it is with Rose's piano, rather than with Rose himself, that I would split hairs - the Es in the middle range of the keyboard seem to be pulling their punches which, for a piece trading so much on that pitch throughout, is a serious matter. But no such trifle can deter Rose, who surely by now has all but sold his soul to Mephisto, from bringing the whole farrago to a breath­taking photo-finish - never once relinquishing his relentless three-in-a-­bar!

Maybe one could conceive of Rose playing all of this better in heaven (if not in hell), released from earthly ties and tribulations, but for this earthly coil one can't imagine anyone doing these three masterpieces greater justice than in this sumptuous performance where grandeur and finesse are mixed in equal parts.

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