Bertrand Chamayou was sometimes seen earlier in his career as a Liszt specialist. He has always had a wide range of repertoire, in fact, but on this occasion he returned to the composer who so expanded the piano’s expressive capacity. Liszt effectively invented the piano recital, and for a long time the difficulties of playing his music meant he was its only executant. This music still poses daunting challenges – including for the audience, to judge by a half-full Wigmore Hall. That was a great pity, but we happy few discerning Lisztians welcomed Chamayou warmly, and he triumphed.

Bertrand Chamayou © Marco Borggreve | Warner Classics
Bertrand Chamayou
© Marco Borggreve | Warner Classics

The first half consisted of transcriptions, beginning with the Six Polish Songs from Chopin’s neglected Op.74. These vocal pieces are clothed in fine pianistic raiment adorning the once-naked vocal part, so we hardly notice that these are actually songs without words. Perhaps that is less true of Spring, the second of the set, where Liszt treats the tune fairly simply, and in which Chamayou sustained a touchingly melancholy lyrical line. The two that sound most Chopinesque are The Ring and Merrymaking, doubtless because both are mazurkas. Liszt even joins them together, quoting the first, concerning a jilted boyfriend, towards the end of the second, a drinking song – one whose text concludes that love is a less reliable intoxicant than drinking. Certainly Chamayou’s playing was as bacchanalian as any devoted toper could have wished.

The two Schumann song transcriptions have more familiar (and wonderful) melodies. Frühlingsnacht, the last song of the Liederkreis Op.39, was delivered with feverish ecstasy in the rapid repeated chordal accompaniment, while Widmung, Schumann’s enchanting wedding gift for Clara, is as evergreen in this transcription as the great original, and was played here with suitable ardour. Wagner’s Parsifal is music we associate with compassion, but when quarried for the Solemn March to the Holy Grail, and wreathed in the bleak harmonies of late Liszt, its funereal tread becomes pitiless, and Chamayou offered no false comfort in a boldly desolate reading. But transfiguration followed, with Isolde’s Liebestod (as Liszt first called it), majestically paced and phrased, achieving the requisite sense of transcendence. And we were not yet done with transcendence.

Chamayou first played Liszt’s 12 Études d’exécution transcendante in 2003, and played it about 40 times over the next two years, up to his live recording of the work in 2005. Its 12 key sequence suggests it is more than a random compilation, and can – perhaps should – be given complete and without a break. The pianist recently referred to “the chance to relive the 12 Transcendental Études for the first time in 13 years.” It sounded as if he had never set them aside, for specialist or not, he has both the technique and temperament for Liszt’s music.

The opening “Preludio” is a brief flourish, a warming-up exercise of the sort that routinely launched 19th-century recitals. The second study, though, is a Molto Vivace with no descriptive title, although here it sounded like a danse macabre with its devilish leaps. “ Paysage” offered repose in its depiction of a tranquil landscape, testing the player’s legato and variety of touch. “Mazeppa”  was graphic in its virtuosity, the main theme in both hands, with ascending double thirds fitted in between the strong beats (perhaps the galloping hooves of the wild steed to which Mazeppa is bound). Its narrative drive was certainly the work of a thoroughbred. “Feux  follets” is one of the most taxing studies with its legato rapid but quiet double notes, and Chamayou’s will o’ the wisps danced with whimsical lightness.

In contrast, several studies were given with terrific attack, sounding less like technical studies then stormy tone poems. “Wilde Jagd” was as wild a hunt as could be imagined, with its wide leaps, its triple forte climax and its stirring coda. “Ricordanza” was once described by Busoni as a “packet of yellowing love letters”, and in the touching poetry of Chamayou’s interpretation that did not seem at all fanciful. “Harmonies du soir” is the richest tone poem of this entire collection, and its spacious evening vista was splendidly laid before us. The snow flurries and chilly tremolandos of the final “Chasse neige” launched what the pianist himself called “one of the most intense moments of all Romantic music”. With such playing that could stand as a motto for the whole set.

The dynamic range of much of this music is ppp to fff, but in the lively acoustic of a half-empty hall we heard more of the latter than the former. I also think I heard one split note, but otherwise the speed and accuracy of execution was astounding. Chamayou’s playing of this exhausting programme was truly transcendental, such that technique – and stamina – could almost be taken for granted, and drama and poetry could prevail.