CD Review

Happy birthday, abbe Liszt!


© Chris Green, October 2011


This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Franz Liszt in a small town in Hungary, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The link with classical music was already there for Liszt’s father was a steward in the services of the Esterhazy Princes who had already been patrons to Josef Haydn who had died two years previously. Piano lessons from Beethoven’s former pupil Czerny was to set the young Liszt on a performing career that brought him to the notice of concert-goers in many countries and to the adulation of females who would swoon at the sight of this aesthete who produced from the piano a remarkable array of sounds.

Liszt was a womaniser for most of his life, but what is more remarkable is the way that he spanned a variety of styles of important figures in the musical world. For example, his daughter Cosima was to marry Richard Wagner. Liszt was an early developer musically and by the age of fourteen had written two piano concertos. These are now lost and the two concertos we know are products of a later period. They demonstrate his fluency for piano writing but also using the orchestra in an economical but interesting way. From Naxos Records, the two concertos are coupled with Totentanz in a vivid recording in which the newly-invigorated Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is joined by soloist Eldar Bebolsin and conducted by Vasily Petrenko who is making considerable waves in the North-West of England ( Naxos 8.570517).

The recording produced by Tim Handley and engineered by Phil Rowlands seems to strike just the right balance between solo instrument and orchestra, for recorded in too ambient an acoustic the textures of Liszt’s writing can become blurred. That is certainly not the case with another Liszt CD release in which young American Matthew Cameron plays a selection of piano works (Cala CACD 88045). In fact, this recording is on the dry side. Recorded in New York with Cameron producing the recording may suggest that a more detached producer would have taken a different view of the studio ambience for the effect is somewhat tiring on the ear though the playing of seven works by Liszt is impressive including as it does two of his symphonic poems written for orchestra and transcribed by Cameron.

The symphonic poems are amongst Liszt’s most significant contribution to musical development. The idea of composing music depicting a theme was not new but compressing the development into a work of compact proportions yet with developing themes was innovative. The recording catalogue is not short of excellent recordings but in this selection I must mention two. From Naxos Records there is a most impressive programme of three of the thirteen poems with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Halasz ( Naxos 8.557846). I am increasingly becoming impressed with the quality of the band from “down under”, and here they do not disappoint with a thrilling account of this trio of symphonic poems ending with Battle of the Huns (Hunnenschlacht).

Which leads me to the fourth in the quartet of CDs devoted to the music. Chandos Records have released a series of devoted to Liszt’s symphonic poems. Volume 4 contains fourth of the poems with only one duplicated by the Naxos recording, and that is Hunnenschlacht. Hungaria (Symphony Poem No() opens the proceedings played with passion and brilliance by the BBC Philharmonic (based in Manchester) conducted by Gianandrea Noseda (Chandos CHAN 10490). Chandos recordings rarely disappoint either musically or technically, and here the well-indexed CD enables one to pick out individual sections of each tone poem which is very helpful when faced with a complicated work such as Die Ideale (Symphonic Poem, No 12) premiered in 1857 and inspired by text by Schiller.

Liszt may have been known for his virtuosic playing in his lifetime, or by his many dalliances, but here we have a chance to reflect upon the skill which he undertook composing for an orchestra that was in transition.