Romantic Piano Masters

Romantic Piano Masters

Mariam Batsashvili’s youthful passion and energy are every bit as contagious in conversation as when she is coaxing magical sounds from her Yamaha piano. “For me, it is natural to seek the depth of emotion in music and then find a way of expressing that to an audience,” she tells Apple Music. “Whether I’m performing live in concert or in the recording studio, I feel a responsibility to communicate to people the feelings the music evokes in me. I have a strong sense of human connection, which I find inspires me to play to the best of my ability.” Typical of Batsashvili’s inspired approach to programming is Romantic Piano Masters, her latest album for Warner Classics. Fascinated by the idea of creative collaboration, she is keen to explore in terms of the piano how composers have rethought and adapted music originally intended for the opera house, lieder salon, ballroom, and organ loft. Central to the project is Franz Liszt, the most blazingly inventive of all transcribers and a composer with whom Batsashvili feels a special connection. “I first encountered Liszt’s music when I was about 12,” she recalls, “and was initially excited by all the amazing effects and technical bravado in ‘La campanella.’ I then created a narrative for the piece about a bell with genuine feelings and emotions, so that it was no longer just about athletic leaps and repeated octaves, but a deeper level of emotional experience, tinged with sadness. This was my entrée into the world of Liszt, and ever since then, no matter what technical difficulties are involved, it has all been about revealing his music’s amazing expressive potency. On the album, I have tried to embrace the various sides of Liszt’s complex musical personality. On the one hand, you have the grand virtuoso treatment of the Valse de l’opéra ‘Faust’ [Track 10], in which Liszt takes us to Heaven and Hell and just about everywhere in between, then, on the other, the beautiful Schubert song transcriptions.” If Liszt tends to be extroverted in his handling of operatic sources, with lieder he is more intimately engaging, as witnessed in one of Mariam’s favorite tracks on the album, Liszt’s glowing realization of Schubert’s “Ständchen” (“Serenade,” Track 7). “This shows just how sensitive Liszt was to Schubert’s unique soundworld,” she says. “The main challenge here is to become two people at the same time—singer and accompanist. This is achieved by contrasting tonal colors, which Liszt keeps adding to as you go along. For example, the second time the main melody comes around, he instructs that it should sound like a cello, so you have to try and emulate the instrument’s deep resonance and warmth. Then, towards the end, he ingeniously divides the melody between two different registers. It is an incredibly poignant love song, but you have to be careful to retain a certain dignity—otherwise there is always the danger, in a piece as beautiful as this, of emotional meltdown!” Another inspired idea was to include a piece by Liszt’s one-time great rival, Austrian piano wizard Sigismond Thalberg. Mariam reminds Apple Music that the two once went head-to-head in public, although Liszt really couldn’t understand Thalberg’s appeal. “Liszt thought Thalberg’s transcriptions were worthless,” she laughs, “because he had nothing in his brain or his heart! It’s certainly true that Thalberg did not possess Liszt’s emotional range or stylistic empathy, but I included his Grand Caprice [Track 4] on melodies from Bellini’s opera La sonnambula because it’s such fun to play. Thalberg basically selects the best tunes from the opera, and in the middle lets rip with some technical fireworks. He was young, impressionable, and undeniably a great pianist—so why not?” Batsashvili’s extraordinary range of tonal colors is, perhaps, at its most potent in Harold Bauer’s inspired transcription of César Franck’s work for pipe organ, the Prélude, Fugue et Variation (Tracks 1-3): her left hand emulates the lower pedals, while the right generates unmistakably the contrasting sounds of different manuals. Yet it is achieving the right mood that, she feels, is most essential. “Whenever I play this piece,” she reveals, “I try to recreate the skin-tingling feeling I get whenever I’m alone in a church and an organist is practicing—the wonderful sense of being completely in the moment. It really doesn’t matter what is being played—it’s the special atmosphere that is generated.” By also including two original waltzes by Liszt (Valse de bravoure, Track 11) and Chopin (the glorious A-Flat, Op. 42, Track 9), Batsashvili gives listeners a chance to compare the two greatest piano composers of the 19th century. “Both start off in a way designed to heighten your expectations. You’re not quite sure where the music’s going to go,” Mariam smiles knowingly. “In Chopin’s case—my favorite of all the waltzes—he warmly embraces the idiom with some of his most exquisite invention. But the always spontaneous Liszt just can’t help himself: After a while, the triple-time elegance of the music becomes too much for him, and he throws a rhythmic spanner in the works, forcing it into a 1-2, 1-2, 1-2 pattern. It’s hilarious!”

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