Els Biesemans‘s newest CD brings multiple pleasures. There are the joys of hearing Liszt’s keyboard transcriptions of 12 of the 24 songs of Schubert’s Winterreise. There are the songs by Mendelssohn and Chopin. There is the combination of sensitivity and panache in Biesemans’ playing.
And there is the recording, an audiophile’s dream. Listened to on a good sound system, the period fortepiano made by Aloys Biber in 1835 and restored by Georg Ott displays a spacious capacity for singing melodicism (as in the Winterreise song “Wasserflut” for example), haunting tension (“Der Leiermann”), dramatic rumbles (“Der Lindenbaum”), midrange clarity (“Die Post”), and an even balance between strong bass notes and celestial high ones (“Erstarrung”). These qualities work together to bring out every nuance of the transcriptions.
As one critic wrote in 1839, “No singer can sing the way Liszt sings on the piano.” Biesemans demonstrates that these lieder really don’t need their words (though the booklet provides the German texts) to convey the essence of their meaning. That was part of Schubert’s genius, actually, and something Liszt obviously recognized long ago.
For reference, I listened to the classic and conservative Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau/Alfred Brendel recording of the Winterreise. Immediately what Liszt did became clear to me. The peaceful “Gute Nacht” has, in the original, a mellow, gentle melody with a straightforward piano accompaniment, and Liszt begins his transcription fairly simply too. But he quickly flowers up the melody and romanticizes the piece, though not (as sometimes happens with Liszt) to excess; it becomes a pianistic showpiece while retaining the fundamental sense of restfulness Schubert gave it.
Similarly, the flashy song “Mut!” (“Courage!”) has all the forthrightness of the original even as Bieseman introduces Lisztian rubato. Liszt darkens the slow, contemplative “Das Wirtshaus” (“The Inn”) and fills it with glistening runs and arpeggios without losing the weary conviction of Schubert’s song.
As for Mendelssohn, the very inventor of the “song without words,” Liszt lovingly transcribed some of his friend’s songs with words into brilliant displays of keyboard fireworks, giving Biesemans a chance (fully taken!) to display her virtuosity. The relatively calm “Suleika,” by contrast, has the aching beauty of the composer’s “Venetian Boat Songs.” Hearing these transcriptions in a vacuum, I don’t imagine anyone would guess they were originally written for piano and voice.
Chopin’s Six Polish Songs were new to me, but Liszt’s transcriptions are thoroughly Chopinesque, and Biesemans’ accounting of them shows that her affinity for high romanticism is as strong as her feel for the more studied panorama of the Winterreise cycle. “Mädchen’s Wunsch” (“Maiden’s Desire”) affirms the distinct quality of the instrument’s high register, while the melancholy “Frühling” (“Spring”) boasts one of the loveliest of Chopin’s disconcertingly simple melodies. “Bacchanal” (or “Merrymaking,” “Hulanka” in Polish) comes across as a kind of halting Polonaise, martial and doubtful at the same time, and lavishly decorated with glissandi and accelerandi. (Thanks to Spotify I was also able to familiarize myself with the sung versions through a sparkling recording by Anna Haase.)
Biesemans ends the album with Liszt’s own famous Nocturne No. 3 from his Liebesträume. Her rendition on the period instrument is eye-opening. Modern grand pianos have a richer tonality that agrees almost too well with romantic music like this. The more compressed palette of the fortepiano emphasizes the crispness of the individual notes, giving an impression analogous to a higher-resolution image. Biesemans plays modern pianos too, and is an organist as well. But on the strength purely of her Winterreise album, the first recording of hers that I’ve heard, it feels as if she’d been born to play this 180-year-old instrument.
The album succeeds on multiple levels, but its greatest pleasure may lie in the evident joy the keyboardist takes in her keyboard. How can we know the dancer from the dance? Yeats’s question becomes even thornier when a performer gives us a composer’s transcriptions of works by other composers. But when a performance truly succeeds, do we really need to know?