My education into the nature of antique instruments continued last night at BRQ Vantaa Festival. Following on from the previous evening's concert, played on a replica of a Beethoven-era Conrad Graf, an all-Liszt recital was given by fellow Hungarian Gábor Farkas, using a real Érard, an instrument such as Liszt used on his tours of England.

Gábor Farkas © Jari Miettinen
Gábor Farkas
© Jari Miettinen
The Érard is far closer to a modern piano than the Graf: it's an altogether more solid affair with a much bigger sound, especially in the low notes. It's in the highs that you notice the difference most: when Farkas played the silvery bubbling of the fountains of the Jeux d'eaux à la villa d'Este, the watery sunlight glittered through the runs and tremolos at the top came through with unaccustomed effortlessness. The ending, in which the tremolos fade into the softest of pianissimi, was perfectly balanced. Farkas was particularly effective in the transitions from the rolling bass figures up towards the gentler phrases at the top of the keyboard.

In other ways, the instrument didn't convince me. The low notes sounded big and round, with a slightly metallic ring that sounded rich when played singly, but when lows and highs were played together, the highs tended to get swamped. Generally, there was a tendency to muddiness in the lows – coming, I'm sure, from the instrument: the hall acoustic at Vantaa's St Lawrence Chapel seemed pleasant and relatively dry (it's a modern building with the clean architectural lines and abundance of daylight much beloved by Finns).

While the programme notes talked much about Liszt the showman, that's not how Farkas began the concert: the first work was the Sposalizio, Liszt's musical memoir of Raphael's painting The Marriage of the Virgin, in which Farkas displayed Chopin-like delicacy rather than Lisztian fireworks: it struck me that this is Liszt in rather respectful mood.

Liszt's paraphrase of the waltz from Gounod's Faust fared less well. Again, there were beautiful top notes and plenty of great effects – I'll especially pick out a great roll from high to low – and a proper Lisztian flourish at the end. But this was the piece where the high notes were most swamped by the lows. It's also a piece which in which I want to be swept off my feet by the waltz rhythm, and there were enough slight hesitations and uncertainties for that not to happen: the waltz was insufficiently demonic. By the next piece, however, the Ave Maria (Church Bells of Rome), Farkas seemed to have fully got the measure of the piano, with everything nicely in balance.

All this, however, turned out to be merely the lead-in to the main meat of the concert: the Hungarian Rhapsody no. 12 in C sharp minor followed by Liszt's arrangement of Saint-Saëns' Danse macabre. These are both big, showy, high energy pieces. Since, as an audience, we're used to hearing them played on a modern Steinway, we have certain expectations of weight and brilliance: to fulfil those expectations on an Érard, for nearly 20 minutes of music, is a big ask. Farkas went for it from the start, with the portentous opening of the Hungarian Rhapsody. He was razor sharp on the broken chords and handled the multiple changes of pace adroitly. He doesn't bother with the Lisztian histrionics, but the contrast between vigour and light touch gives all the intensity you need without it.

The Danse macabre, with its multiple variations on the Dies irae melody, is one of those Liszt pieces that looks simply unplayable, with the giant cascades of notes and the impossible leaps to the top of the keyboard. Farkas kept the excitement levels up right the way through.to the finishing line.

***11