Pianist Christopher O’Riley’s disappointing Liszt transcriptions

May 28, 2013

Pianist Christopher O’Riley is in some ways a spiritual heir to Franz Liszt, principally in his eagerness to translate music of his time into the medium of the virtuoso piano solo.

His musical evangelism (which includes his highly-acclaimed work as host of NPR’s “From The Top”) extends to a mix and match of venues and repertoire.

When I last heard him, he was at Wolf Trap, playing Radiohead, Pink Floyd and Nirvana. On Monday evening, he was at Iota, a bar in Arlington, playing classical music. The program consisted entirely of Liszt transcriptions — a Chopin song, a Berlioz symphony and operas by Wagner and Mozart.

O’Riley is touring to promote a new CD of this material, “O’Riley’s Liszt” on Oxingale Records, and this was his fourth performance in a string of similar venues around the country. He gamely ignored the loud, persistent high “F” emanating from the artisanal beer cooler, as well as the flashes from camera phones and the occasional clatter of dishes and mugs. In spoken remarks he didn’t talk down to the audience at all, giving a long narrative description of the Berlioz “Symphonie Fantastique.”

O’Riley’s deep enthusiasm for the material showed in every way except execution. Monday’s performance was riddled with flubs and missed notes. His rhythmic control lapsed whenever the music became difficult — which was often — and there was little truly soft playing. For a pianist of his stature, this was a disappointing turn.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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