The first work to fully exploit the potential of the modern concert grand, the Liszt Sonata is now one of the most frequently performed piano sonatas. It was not always this way. The work was largely ignored and even reviled during the composer's lifetime and didn't really enter the repertoire until Horowitz's groundbreaking studio recording in 1932. So that's a good place to start our listening.
The sound on this carefully restored set of Horowitz recordings from 1930 to 1951 is thin and lacking in any real sense of tonal color, but it is also mercifully clear and undistorted and relatively free of background and groove noise. This allows us to hear all the notes and gives us a hint of the sonority Horowitz must have produced at the height of his technical powers. What emerges is a highly cohesive overall framework on which to hang the various episodes. As to the details in those episodes, one can only marvel at the extraordinary articulation and sparkling rhythms that Horowitz brings to the music. At other times he may have been accused of distorting the composer's intentions, but here he is true to Liszt's intentions. Even though his pace is quick, he misses none of the poetry. He points out many interesting details others miss, even with the benefit of hindsight. Of particular interest is how carefully controlled this performance is. Even at the most technically demanding moments, Horowitz is shaping the phrasing meticulously, holding something in reserve.
Richter's 1965 live performance comes with much more than its fair share of coughing and other distracting noises, and his piano seems to be a little out of tune. Of the four recordings, this has much the warmest tone, and I found it easy to picture myself in the audience despite the recording quality. This is not a bravura performance by Richter's own standards, but a spontaneous and richly flowing version capturing not just the power but also the passion and poetry of the work in a way that eludes Horowitz. This is the performance which brings out the widest gamut of Liszt's vast canvass; how sad it is the recording quality is so soft, to put it politely.
Martha Argerich's 1971 recording spotlights her phenomenal technique and hair-raising pyrotechnics. But sometimes less is more. Her high-energy approach often obscures details, and it can also trample on the structural lines of the work. Her playing seems to scream look at me at times, and I don't think this is a version I could live with for the longer term. Sound quality is quite good, dynamics are strong, but there is little warmth in the piano tone itself. Don't get me wrong, I think very highly of Argerich, but I don't think this recording shows her at her best.
I have often used Krystian Zimerman's phenomenal recording from 1990 to test the dynamic capabilities of stereo components. Zimerman takes his time – a full five and half minutes longer than Argerich and four minutes longer than Horowitz. This approach gives the work a chance to breathe, and his phrasing emphasizes its wonderful sustained harmonics. He is as ferocious as Argerich, but his spectacular pianism never crosses the line into virtuosity as an end in itself. Everything is played under superhuman control, but without that feeling of a tight leash you get with Horowitz. Excellent recording quality, with a seemingly limitless dynamic range. I have a few minor issues along the way. From time to time the tone gets hard, even ugly, and his phrasing lacks the elasticity of Richter, who also finds more poetry in the slow sections. These imperfections are not enough to prevent this performance from taking the top recommendation among these four virtuoso pianists.
I have heard each of these great artists in the concert hall, and I can state clearly that among these four, Horowitz is the greatest pianist but Richter the best musician. This conclusion holds equally for these four recordings.
Even Zimerman's commanding performance does not for me efface the memory of two other profoundly great Liszt pianists, whose performances of the B Minor Sonata emphasize deep spirituality more than technical virtuosity per se. Alfred Brendel's Liszt is perhaps the most perfectly proportioned of all, so absolutely right is his wonderful sense of rhythm and his resolute left hand, all-important in this work. His playing is not so overt in its virtuosity, closer to Richter's live recording but lower in temperature and with better sonics. His mercurial early Vox recording [CDX 5172] in a rather thin sound has not an ounce of fat on it, while his later, richer Philips digital recording takes a more probing and lyrical view, without dropping his tempo – and is recommended above Argerich, Horowitz, Zimerman and Richter.
The only way to top the two Brendel recordings is to experience the great Claudio Arrau, who studied with Liszt's pupil Martin Krause. In addition to his superb 1970 recording I heard him perform the Liszt Sonata twice in live performance, once in London around the time of the recording and again many years later, in Toronto. Under his fingers the sonata is weightier and more profound than all rivals, and you walk out thinking not what a great performance but what an incredible composition. It is perhaps Arrau's greatest achievement, surpassing even his Beethoven sonata cycle. He takes a less literal view of the score than his rivals here, not afraid to pause for effect or linger on details, while never losing his grip on the structure. You can find his recording on Philips , and it transcends all of the other recordings discussed here.
Horowitz Richter Argerich Zimerman Brendel Arrau
Performance 3.5 3.5 2.5 3.5 3.5 4
Sound 1 2 3 4 4 3.5
Hist. Impor. 4 2 n/a n/a n/a 2