Hungarian pianist Gábor Farkas recorded his new album, Liszt: Opera and Song for Solo Piano (Steinway & Sons), in Steinway Hall in New York – on a Steinway concert grand piano, of course. Appropriately, he marked the release with a concert in the same hall, playing the very same piano. Offering selections from the album along with Robert Schumann’s Carnaval, Farkas showed why Liszt-related prizes figure among the numerous honors he has received over the past decade.
The pianist’s clean-cut appearance and sober air contrasted with the full-tilt Romantic force he brought to these difficult works. The compact “Meine Freuden” from the Six Chants polonais S.480 (transcriptions Liszt made of his friend Chopin’s Op. 74 songs) began with a deeply thoughtful, deliberative opening section with plenty of breathing space and fine melodic clarity. Farkas drew a rich woodsy tone from the piano, making a redolent forest of the piece’s busy passages.
In Liszt’s “Paraphrase on a Waltz from Gounod’s Faust,” sharply accented rhythms in the lower register made the bass a little overwhelming, but then, a piano like this one is built to fill a large concert hall with sound, and its full spectrum can overwhelm a small hall. Farkas distinguished the fast treble passages with crisp separation and clarity. The piece is full of Lisztian excess, but the pianist never went beyond what the notes can bear, drawing alternately steely and soft beauty from the melodies. The quiet arpeggios toward the end, haunting in a fleecy sort of way, led into a delicate dance of trills and some very challenging final passages. (I never fail to think, at least at one point during any concert featuring Liszt’s piano music, that the composer must have been at least a little bit out of his mind.)
Farkas maintained fine balance and taste through Liszt’s transcription of Schumann’s “Widmung,” giving spectacle its due while steering clear of the sentimental excess one could so easily find in the pretty little piece. It made a peaceful overture to Schumann’s brilliant Carnaval, which proved a fitting diversion from the CD that yet maintained the concert’s flow.
Through the many miniature movements of the Carnaval the pianist revealed a wide scope of ability and sensibility, beginning with the striding passions of the Preamble, which he gave a rough edge. Deliberate and decisive fortes and pianos marked the “Pierrot,” strikingly contrasting legatos and staccatos carried the “Arlequin,” Chopinesque romance enlivened the “Valse Noble,” and so on. He played the lovely angular melody of the “Chiarina” with such gusto he sacrificed a bit of precision, but the childlike charm he gave to the “Reconnaissance,” the focused energy he infused into the cloudbursts of the “Paganini,” the plentiful rubato of the “Promenade,” and the Brahmsian march at the conclusion reinforced the wholly satisfying and at times quite thrilling rendition of Schumann’s popular but challenging showcase of a suite.