Liszt: Paganini Variations; Rachmaninov: Paganini Rhapsody / Tzimon Barto

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PAGANINI VARIATIONS • Tzimon Barto (pn); Christoph Eschenbach1, cond; Schleswig-Holstein Festival O1 • ONDINE 1230-2 (2 CDs: 85: 22)

LISZT Grandes études de Paganini. BRAHMS Variations on a Theme by Paganini: Books I and II. LUTOS?AWSKI Variations on a Theme by Paganini. RACHMANINOFF 1Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

"Early in the digital era, Tzimon Barto burst onto the scene with a large technique and photogenic looks. He still possesses both. His exotic name belies the fact that he was born in Florida; actually, he was born with the name Johnny Barto Smith, Jr. As a middle school student, he was overweight. Today he is a bodybuilder, and in addition to playing the piano, he is a poet and a philosopher. Formerly, he was a crack addict, but he has been clean since 2008—a transformation spurred, in part, by the sudden death of his young son.

His playing, which is never dull, has had its proponents and detractors. The latter, at least early on, usually would wring their hands over Barto’s musical insensitivity—the triumph of a brawny technique over interpretive subtlety. In recent years, however, Barto’s musicianship seems to have evolved. He still makes controversial, or at least unusual, choices, but now it’s hard to dismiss him as little more than a pounder or a banger.

There’s little danger of monotony in a Paganini-themed release such as this one, given the different approaches taken to the famous theme by Liszt, Brahms, Lutos?awski, and Rachmaninoff. Even so, Barto’s ebullient reading of the Brahms makes it sound more like Rachmaninoff than ever before, and I was reminded of the unlikely criticism—I don’t remember where I read it, however—that Brahms tried too hard to be popular. Barto really does play Brahms to the balconies, and it’s a lot of fun, if rather dark and demonic. The pianist’s heavy use of the sustaining pedal doesn’t allow for the most open of textures, however, and many will complain about how he conflates the two books of variations into one.

The Liszt Études, on the other hand, are surprisingly delicate (mostly), and sometimes even witty. If Barto’s Brahms stings like a bee, his Liszt often floats a hummingbird, to quote another part-time poet from the recent past. The “Octave” Étude (No. 2) feints and struts, and insinuates and shouts like a soundtrack to an old Tex Avery cartoon. “La chasse” (No. 5) is made to sound like Rameau. Barto also raises eyebrows by running the six études together with nary a pause.

Both parts of the Lutos?awski, a work for two pianos, were recorded by Barto, and assembled later. It’s a muscular reading, but the music responds well to an approach such as this, and the result is an unqualified success."

FANFARE: Raymond Tuttle


Product Description:


  • Catalog Number: ODE 1230-2D


  • UPC: 761195123027


  • Label: Ondine


  • Composer: Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Sergei Rachmaninov, Witold Lutoslawski


  • Conductor: Christoph Eschenbach


  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra


  • Performer: Tzimon Barto