As we cannot hear Franz Liszt himself play, the many recordings and piano rolls made by his former pupils are looked upon in some circles as particularly valuable documents in regard to what vestige they may contain of Liszt's own playing. Liszt's very method of teaching, which emphasized the individuality of a given student and often consisted of no more than the master re-playing himself, with comments, a piece played by the pupil, seems to have discouraged the very notion of a player walking home with Liszt's technique transferred directly to his or her fingers. Nevertheless, there are pianists among Liszt's progeny who were identified by their peers as sounding particularly like Liszt; namely Arthur Friedheim, who acted as Liszt's private secretary in his last years, and Portuguese composer-pianist José Vianna da Motta. The recordings featured on Symposium's The Pupils of Liszt: da Motta -- Friedheim have been reissued on CD before; Friedheim on a Pearl collection issued in the 1990s and swiftly deleted, and Vianna da Motta on a poor Dante release from about 1996, likewise long gone. The advantage of having the English label Symposium address these artists is the honesty and clarity of the transfers and the fact that the label only ever uses original discs; the collections of Adelina Patti and the conducting of Franz Schreker are essential packages of these historic artists.
By comparison, this disc is a little disappointing. The liner notes are not well written or particularly helpful and are filled with unqualified statements of various kinds. The idea that "comments on Friedheim's records have been generally dismissive" might have been true in the 1960s, but these artifacts are regarded by those in the know as being some of the most historically important acoustic recordings of the piano, in a league with the records of Brahms, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, and Alfred Cortot's acoustics. How else can one hear a pianist in 1912, whose heritage of training stretches back to Czerny and thus to Beethoven himself, play the Adagio sostenuto from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata at classical tempo? And, unlike the Patti and Schreker collections mentioned above, this collection does not include the complete output on disc of these artists; Friedheim also made little 5" Emerson records, trying to cram a whole Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody into four minutes' playing time. One could easily forgive their omission, but what of the sensational -- although poor in quality -- recording of Vianna da Motta's surviving broadcast of Liszt's Totentanz? Likewise, the inferior take of the two extant recordings of Friedheim's interpretation of Chopin's "Funeral March" from the B flat minor Sonata is utilized here; the Pearl issue contained both. The transfers are a little below Symposium's usual standard, and blasting is a pervasive problem in both Vianna da Motta's Pathés and Friedheim's Columbias.
In sum, Symposium's The Pupils of Liszt: da Motta -- Friedheim is okay for those who need to hear the records of these pianists, but the field is still wide open to other producers who might try to survey their work, hopefully under separate cover; this package is far from being the definitive word on the subject.