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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Symphonic Poems Complete
(see listing below)
Budapest Symphony Orchestra/Árpád Joó
Recorded Budapest 1984/5 DDD
Super bargain price! - also available on HUNGAROTON HCD1267781 at full price
[5CDs: 297.16]


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Comparison recordings:

Kurt Masur, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

EMI Double Forte CZS5685952

Studio Plus CDM7648502

Encore 5756232

V.1 [DDD] MHS 522171L

V.2 [ADD] MHS 522534M

James Conlon, Rotterdam PO

[DDD] Erato ECD 88235

Hermann Scherchen, Vienna State Opera Orchestra

[AAD] MCA MCAD2 9832

[ADD] Universal-Westminster 471237

Arthur Fiedler, Boston Pops Orchestra

[ADD] RCA/BMG 63532

[ADD] MHS 515861K

Sir Thomas Beecham, Royal PO

[ADD] EMI Studio CDM 7 63299 2

Bernard Haitink, London PO

[ADD] V. 2 Philips 438 754-2

[ADD] V.1 Philips 438 751-2

The "MHS" numbers are club issue designations valid for North America only.

It was said that Tommy Beecham bought himself an orchestra so he could learn to conduct it. When Franz Liszt, the most spectacular pianist the world had ever known, wanted an orchestra to conduct so he could learn to write symphonic music he didn’t have to buy it, he just asked and one was given to him. His appointment as Kapellmeister in Extraordinary of the Weimar Court Theatre Orchestra was announced by Grand Duke Carl Friedrich in 1842, but Liszt waited until October 1848 before taking residence there. Thereafter Liszt "gave up" the piano concert-stage to devote himself to more serious musical pursuits, although he could be counted on to come out of retirement frequently for special occasions. His reputation as a conductor grew until 1856 when the City of Vienna scheduled a commemorative concert on the 100th anniversary of Mozart’s birth and engaged him as the greatest interpreter of the time. He had another reputation by then also. The City asked Clara Schumann, as the greatest pianist then regularly before the public, to appear with Liszt in a performance of Mozart’s K.491. When she refused to appear on the same stage with Liszt on moral grounds the Viennese engaged a local pianist. Clara’s and Eduard Hanslick’s partisans tried to assassinate Liszt in the newspapers, but the concerts were a popular success.

During his spectacular concert career Liszt had published piano pieces of varying degrees of difficulty and sophistication. His piano style reached to embrace the full range of orchestral sonority, and now that he had an orchestra he lost no time in expressing himself through it. He learned from his friends — Conradi and Raff (the latter even falsely claiming to be the true author of some of Liszt’s music) — and conscripted orchestra members into long "rehearsal" sessions as he tried out various sonic combinations. But soon he became an assured master in his own right and needed no further tutoring. He is now considered one of the true innovators of Nineteenth Century Romantic orchestral style.

With many composers their overtures and occasional pieces lie around in drawers and are only collected and published posthumously. But, ever the innovator, Liszt invented a name for them — "Symphonic Poems" — and published the first six in 1856, the rest of the thirteen numbered "poems" at various later times. While some of these works derived at least in part from festival occasions in Weimar, others are known to have been brewing for a long time. All of them are associated with a particular poem, picture, or poetic character. In addition to the numbered thirteen, there are six other orchestral pieces related to poetry and occasionally included in the canon.

Liszt was born in the German speaking part of Hungary. The spelling of the family name was changed to LISZT from LIST to be sure that the S was always pronounced SS, not Z and not SH. His real liberal education was in the salons of Paris, so for the rest of his life he thought in French and spoke German haltingly, with an accent. If he delivered an address in Hungarian it had to be written out beforehand. Liszt wrote songs setting poems in both French and German, but while composing the German ones he worked from a French translation. So, although because of his work in Weimar he has been thought of as a "German composer", the titles of most of his Symphonic Poems were in French, even though some of the alternative German titles have become better known through their long being played by German conductors.

Liszt was overwhelmingly impressed by two musicians when he was in Paris: Paganini and Rossini. He made his resolve to be as great a pianist as Paganini was a violinist and to obtain from his instrument, the piano, all the dramatic force, passion, softness, colour, and subtlety of the operatic stage. Although he had studied the instrument with Czerny, nobody had ever accomplished what he set out to do and he had to become his own teacher. Later he was himself a popular and sought after teacher and his students created the Romantic piano style. He wrote many piano (and organ) pieces which were summarizations, suites, based upon operas; but he himself only wrote one romantic opera, Don Sanche, when he was but an adolescent. Therefore it is useful to think of the Symphonic poems as suites from the operas Liszt never finished writing. As such they need to be performed with as much drama, as much variety of colour and mood as if they were operas. And it must be said they need a little of the flamboyant showmanship that was part of Liszt’s stage manner.

The works encompass a wide range of emotions and moods. They are alike in that Liszt valued them highly and worked on them diligently by way of successful bold experiments in orchestral sound. Each is a profoundly felt expression of one facet of the composer’s emotional life. But they do not constitute a gigantic symphony in 13+ movements. Each is a distinct separate work and there is nothing to be gained by a complete hearing of them straight through in numerical order. You will enjoy them more if you select them to hear as a response to your moods rather than trying to let the music determine your mood. A Liszt Symphonic Poem has little in common with contemporaneous works by Mendelssohn and Schumann; it is more aptly to be compared with a Rossini opera overture. That may be why Sir Thomas Beecham, Leopold Stokowski, and Arthur Fiedler have been among the most successful Liszt interpreters of recent times. Árpád Joó hereby takes his place honourably near them.

The works at hand are:

Table 1


Publication Number and/or Name

First sketches

First performance

Final version


1 Ce Qu’on Entend sur la Montagne


II 1850

7 I 1857


2 Tasso


28 VIII 1849



3 Les Preludes


28 II 1854



4 Orpheus


16 II 1854



5 Prometheus


24 VIII 1850



6 Mazeppa

1849, 1851

16 IV 1854



7 Festklänge


9 XI 1854



8 Héroïde Funébre


10 XI 1857



9 Hungaria


8 IX 1856



10 Hamlet


2 VII 1876



11 Hunnenschlacht

10 II 1857

28 XII 1857



12 Die Ideale


5 IX 1857



13 Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe




Der Nächtlige Zug




Dorfschenker Tanz, Meph. Wlz.#1


8 III 1861



Mephisto Waltz #2


9 III 1881



St. François d’Assise Prédication…


>1975 [sic]

23 X 1863


St. François de Paul Marchand…


>1975 [sic]

23 X 1863


Szózat & Hymnus


19 III 1873


Table 2

Number/Name timing ®



1 Ce Qu’on entend sur la..Montagne



2 Tasso



3 Les Préludes



Fiedler: 15:29

Conlon: 16:45

4 Orpheus



Beecham: 10:48

5 Prometheus



6 Mazeppa



Fiedler: 16:18

Scherchen: 14:16

7 Festklänge



Les Préludes cont:

8 Héroïde Funébre



Haitink: 27:02

Scherchen: 15:30

9 Hungaria



Haitink: 23:09

Stokowski: 16:09

10 Hamlet



Haitink: 13:50

Lopez-Cobos: 16:19

11 Hunnenschlacht



Scherchen: 12:53

Haitink: 14:53

12 Die Ideale



Haitink: 26:49

13 Von der Wiege…



Haitink: 13:42

Der Nächtlige Zug



Conlon: 15:13

Dorfschenker Tanz, MW#1



Scherchen: 13:08

Conlon: 12:00

Mephisto Waltz #2



Haitink: 11:00

St. François d’Assise..Prédication aux Oiseaux

Conlon: 12:13

St. François de Paul Marchand Sur Les Flots

Conlon: 8:38

Szózat & Hymnus


Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne ("What you can hear in the mountains") is one of the most explicitly descriptive of the Symphonic Poems (although its original appellation was "Méditation Symphonique") since it is Liszt’s impressions of Victor Hugo’s poem of the same name from the 1831 collection "Feuilles d’Automne." Table 2 gives you the basic idea of the performances: the longer the timing the more likely the conductor slowed down for the slow parts, having the patience to develop the dramatic contrasts. The single greatest sin in most performances of these works as a whole is for the conductor to be impatient and want to get it over with quickly, this music still being held in contempt by some conductors who feel obliged to play it off quickly anyway.

The poem tells us that what you hear in the mountains, which are on the coast of Brittany, by the way, is the turbulent ocean currents and the crashing of the ocean waves on the rocks below, the cry of suffering humanity rising from the earth, and the winds of heaven — and these are the things you hear in the music. (We also hear pre-echoes of Sibelius’ First Symphony.) Some critics think the initial fluttering orchestral sounds refer to the wind blowing leaves, the "Feuilles d’Automne" of the title of the collection. But the poem makes it quite clear to this listener that this is the sound of turbulent ocean currents, followed by various rising intonation mountain climbing themes, some pastoral Swiss shepherd music, and finally the winds of the frosty heights. (Perhaps you can begin to see why Eduard Hanslick thought all this was so absurdly funny.)

But Liszt was a phoney Nature lover, the original California Buddhist. He never climbed anything but stairs and was never in his adult life out of sight of a brick building. The closest he would get to wilderness was through the window of a train or in a noble’s formal garden. (Wagner on the other hand was a true mountaineer and had hiked many hundreds of miles in the forest as a youth.)

Masur (DDD) is a bit more incisive at times, Árpád Joó finds a little more mystery. Both recordings are equally valid overall and in both recordings the solo violin part is played superbly but only Masur gives name credit (Gerhard Bosse).

Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo, Symphonic Poem #2 was conceived as an overture to Goethe’s play "Torquato Tasso." Liszt was also inspired by Byron’s "Lament of Tasso." As the title suggests the work is a depiction of the deepest of despair and depression followed by the wildest paranoiac ecstasy of total victory. This must have been Eduard Hanslick’s favourite Liszt since it comes closest to making his case. Here the problem is not expressiveness, but reserve, keeping some sense of proportion, particularly in the over-the-top finale which set a new standard of orchestral bombast. Masur (DDD) fails the test and falls into crude banality. Árpád Joó’s innocent sincerity carries him through brilliantly.

Georg Solti and Constantin Silvestri both made distinguished (analogue) recordings of this work. I was unable to obtain in a timely manner copies for direct comparison, but my recollection is that Árpád Joó is still to be preferred.

Les Préludes ("The Fanfares") was written "after A. de Lamartine." But in the first sketches it was a setting with overture of four poems by Joseph Autran. Each poem was for male chorus and had its own prelude, but eventually the general overture became autonomous, first as another "Méditation Symphonique" and finally Symphonic Poem #3. The final version of the score contains the text: "What else is our life than a series of preludes to an unknown song, whose first and solemn notes are intoned by death?" The association with Lamartine’s poem "Les Préludes," #16 from Nouvelles Méditations Poétiques, is apparently almost an afterthought. The poem contains many descriptions of musical sounds, but does not contain the text of the ascription.

It was one of the Top Ten Classics when I was a kid, and is the masterpiece of this set, one of Liszt’s very finest works. It is difficult to overestimate the impact of this music; its influence reached far and long. The opening bars are identical to those of Cesar Franck’s Symphony in d. The amorous woodwind and string passages show up in Du bist der Lenz and the Siegfried love music. The tempest sounds given alternately to the first and second violins at the allegro marziale would appear to swirl around the audience; Tchaikovsky used similar effects in Francesca da Rimini in 1876. The final battle scene starts out heroically enough and at first it looks like we’re going to win this one. The snare drum cannot be played too loud. But at the allegro maestoso the mood starts to change and by the final molto ritardando we realise that this is the battle with Death which nobody can win; the music staggers, crumples agonisingly, and the final chord falls like a guillotine. Richard Strauss tried twice to best Les Préludes when he wrote Ein Heldenleben and Tod und Verklärung; neither one quite measures up. (Only young men write about Death this way. When dying men write about Death you get Metamorphosen or Art of the Fugue.) Ironically, Les Preludes owes more to the William Tell Overture than to Leonore #3, and conductors who fail to understand this don’t do well with the work. Most otherwise able performances which fail do so by not fully realising the molto ritardando direction at bar 416 thereby allowing a momentum of tempo to carry through unimpeded to the end, undermining the drama.

First place goes to Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra on analogue RCA CD. Second place to James Conlon and the Rotterdam PO with digital sound. Jesus Lopez-Cobos and the Los Angeles PO would figure about here, but that was a live broadcast recording and was not released commercially. Árpád Joó together with Eric Kunzel and the Cleveland Pops Orchestra rank about here; Árpád Joó lost points for insufficiently accenting the drums and some less than crisp ensemble in the violin section. Kurt Masur is generally very good but at odd moments odd things happen, distractingly. Leopold Stokowski and His Symphony Orchestra (note the capitalised pronoun) is the one I grew up with on 78s (I still remember where the side breaks were, and I remember being puzzled by that "S.P.#3" on the cramped red record label.) and would rate very high, but the wavery mono sound shows its age; on these works the best sound is required. Hermann Scherchen rushes through it with an unprepared orchestra, an unfortunate problem with a number of the recordings in these late VSOO sessions. (I think he spent all his rehearsal time on the Mahler 2nd, and gave us the recording of his life, God bless him!). Karajan is just a little too calculated. Haitink is positively cool. But even if you don’t like it you’ll end up with several Les Préludes recordings, so you might make a different choice and be quite happy. There are probably fifty I’ve never heard (Did Beecham ever record this?).

(It is a testament to the greatness of this music that, after growing up with the 78s and hearing pieces of it hundreds of times as the cue score to the Lone Ranger and Flash Gordon serials, I actually looked forward to hearing it half a dozen times in order to write this review, whereas there is a lengthening list of works by Mozart and Beethoven that I can never listen to again. I’ve scheduled the Shostakovich Tenth Symphony for May of 2003, and the Tchaikovsky Pathétique for some time in 2005.)

Orpheus was originally presented as a pre-overture to a performance of Gluck’s Orpheo ed Euridice in Weimar. Many conductors play through it affectingly enough, but no one achieves the gushing, heart-stopping sentiment of Sir Thomas Beecham on ADD EMI. After hearing that one the others all sound somewhat flat. Árpád Joó is better than most, and the others who don’t rush through it are generally OK.

Prometheus was first performed as an overture to a choral cantata on the subject. It is another depiction of despair, struggle, victory, this struggle section containing an extensive orchestral fugue. Masur (DDD) clearly loves this music and here gives the most exciting performance on his set, the finest performance of this work I’ve ever heard, likely to remain first choice for some time to come. Certainly the Árpád Joó and Georg Solti versions remain satisfactory alternatives.

Mazeppa, Symphonic Poem after Victor Hugo was based on the fourteenth poem from "Les Orientales." This orchestral version was preceded by two versions for solo piano. It is fatally easy for conductors to get going with a fast beat and forget to shape the dramatics. Arthur Fiedler is again the very best, making the most out of the Big Tune and achieving real grandeur in the finale. Masur (DDD) and Árpád Joó are both very good.

Festklänge ("Festival Sounds") was written as a wedding march for his hoped-for marriage to Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein. The marriage never happened, of course. Árpád Joó is the most joyous. Only the first phrase of the Big Tune is similar to the Canadian national anthem, but both may well derive from the same Eastern European folk song.

Héroïde Funébre ("Funeral letter to a Hero") was first conceived for the martyrs of the French uprising of July 1830, made more personally urgent by the events of 1848 in Dresden, and actually produced finally in 1849 to commemorate the execution of the 13 generals who had led the Hungarian rebellion (or as Árpád Joó’s note writer would have it, the Hungarian War of Independence) against Austria. The work is an extended dirge containing bold percussion, whispering funeral drums—writing exceptional for its time and it absolutely requires digital sound. It also contains difficult brass passages making it almost a concerto for trombone and horn, and is played with angry patriotic intensity by Árpád Joó. In Les Préludes we have a victory fanfare that is gradually changed into a funeral cadence. Here we have the opposite, a mourning cry that is slowly begins to portend eventual victory. Masur (DDD) opts for the alternate shorter version, his equally skilled brass players not quite so far forward. Haitink (ADD) lacks digital transparency in the highs, but he achieves fine lower frequency definition including a clear distinction between timpani and bass drum, and a powerful dramatic climax. The term heroide was coined by Ovid to describe poems in the form of letters written to heroes.

Hungaria is clearly a patriotic pageant including many folk music motifs and would fit right in if played along with the Hungarian Rhapsodies. It is played with élan and authentic partisan spirit by Árpád Joó, with surprising fury by Bernard Haitink, and with clean excitement by Kurt Masur.

Hamlet depicts Hamlet’s horror, his internal struggle, the grotesquerie of the jester Yorick, the gentleness of Ophelia, the eventual tragedy. Contrary to what his enemies charged, Liszt’s Christianity was sincere, and he was as concerned for Hamlet’s salvation as he was for Faust’s, perhaps more so because Hamlet was verifiably a real person. As Gretchen (in her transfigured guise as das Ewig-Weibliche) saved Faust, (as depicted in the Faust Symphony) as Princess Carolyne would save Liszt, so would the transfigured Ophelia eventually save Hamlet and this is the drama of this Symphonic Poem. Masur (ADD) is excellent here, achieving more excitement, tension, and drama that Árpád Joó. Haitink and his orchestra play very well, also.

Hunnenschlacht ("Battle against the Huns") is some of the best battle music ever written with the victory of the good guys signalled by the organ chords at the end. The subject is not a poem but a fresco formerly in the Berlin State Museum depicting the defeat of the Huns in 451 CE. Only Haitink (ADD) gets the organ part exactly right—just what Liszt wanted, huge and commanding, the Voice of God; but up to that moment, I had to keep checking the disk to make sure I wasn’t listening to the Schubert Great C Major Symphony (I forget what number we’re calling it this week.). Árpád Joó’s performance is clean and vigorous; the organ is weak and distant and a good thing, too—it’s out of tune. Masur’s (ADD) stereo perspective is broad and deep even if the bass is not so full. His cymbal clashes are raw and barbaric, the organ sound is rich and well integrated into the acoustic. Here Scherchen’s rapid tempo and the orchestra’s struggle to keep up with him generally adds to the excitement, but the organ sounds small and close-up.

Die Ideale ("The Ideals") inspired by the Schiller poem of the same name, and words from the poem are printed in the score.

I. Allegro spirituoso,

"Right to the palest star of the ether

Dreams of flight bore him aloft;

Nothing was too high and nothing so distant

That their wings could not bear him there."

II. Andante maestoso, Disappointment,

"But, oh, even in the middle of the road;

The travellers lost each other;

They knew not whither to turn their steps,

And one after the other fell aside."


"Who creates slowly and never destroys,

Who when building eternities

Only offers one grain of sand for another,

but still of the great guilt of time

Spreads Minutes, Days, Years."

III. Maestoso con somma passione,

"The highest purpose of our life must be to stand firm and thus pursue the ideal remorselessly. In this sense I have allowed myself to expand Schillers poem by the joyful restoring repetition of the motive stated in the first movement as a concluding apotheosis."

One has the sense of a romantic symphony founded on classical principles. Masur (ADD) may have an edge over Árpád Joó in performance here, but this one is too close to call. Haitink (ADD) and his orchestra play well but do not strike any sparks.

Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe ("From the Cradle to the Grave") Five years before he died Liszt received an allegorical pen and ink drawing from Count Mihály Zichy which inspired him one last time to write a musical essay depicting the stages of the life of a poet. This is even closer than #12 to classical symphonic structure in being in three separate movements, with different thematic material in the middle movement, subtitled "The Struggle for Existence." Here in the last of the Symphonic Poems the form has become almost completely metamorphosed into the Poetic Symphony. In the first movement he quotes from a cradle song previously composed for piano. Masur (ADD) moves us through quickly and tightens the structure. Árpád Joó takes a more meditative approach. Your choice. Haitink and his orchestra play capably.

Der Nächtlige Zug should be heard much more often. This tidy masterpiece with its grinding doublebasses cast its musical shadow on Götterdämmerung, Gurrelieder, and Franck and Saint-Saëns symphonies. Its relative rarity of performance may be due to there being no Big Tune. Both Árpád Joó and Masur play it with admirable intensity. Conlon is just a little brighter both in sound and mood.

Dorfschenker Tanz, Mephisto Waltz #1 Scherchen and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra have a clear edge here. Nobody plays a waltz, even a diabolical one, with the verve and sense of motion of the Viennese. The analogue sound is very clear, the harp being especially well played and recorded. Conlon stirs up a sprightly gavotte, but only the Devil would waltz to it. Haitink produces an astonishing replica of an Elgarian Pomp and Circumstance march! Masur (ADD) plays with energy and drama. Árpád Joó seems just slightly stodgy by comparison, but certainly all these versions are top drawer.

Mephisto Waltz #2 is a different musical world from #1, sounding more like a Parisian fragment of Gounod’s Faust than anything Viennese. Árpád Joó and Masur play it with appropriately brooding drama, Masur a little faster and brighter.

St. François d’Assise. La Prédication aux Oiseaux ("St. Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds") was, along with the next poem, for a time considered to be an original orchestral composition later arranged for piano, but it is now thought that the piano version came first. This is cited as the way Liszt orchestrated before his "instruction" by Raff and Conradi, and since he makes some of the same mistakes I do it sounds perfectly fine to me. These piano birdsongs must have made an impression on the student Messiaen.

St. François de Paul Marchand Sur Les Flots ("St. Francis of Paola Walking over the Tides") While persons of all religions and of no religion can admire St. Francis of Assisi, St. Francis de Paola is less well known, but it is he who is Liszt’s namesake.

Both these works have a similar structure, where simple words or steps by the Saint swell in almost Augustinian grandeur in a statement of the power of Christendom. In "Marchand" the tune is stated at the beginning and is repeated over and over, ever larger and grander; however, the birds, for their part, sound more as though they are thinking about making little birds than promoting religion. (There exists an utterly hair-raising recording of the piano version of "Marchand" by Ervin Nyiregyházi.)

This Conlon recording is apparently no longer in the catalogue, but recordings go in and out of the listings so quickly these days it makes sense to include it. Also, used copies are generally available from various sources.

Szózat and Hymnus is listed in the Searle catalogue as a transcription. The poem here is the Hungarian national anthem and again the Hungarians play it with fervour and sincerity, but again it might be more appropriately played along with the Hungarian Rhapsodies, if at all.

On February 14, 1859, Liszt, after having been booed off the stage, forsook any further conducting of the Weimar Court Theatre Orchestra and formally resigned his post as Kapellmeister. The spectacular burst of innovative orchestral composition activity of the previous eleven years came to an end, but the echoes of it would resound in other people’s music for 100 years. Liszt abandoned the mansion loaned to him by the crown during his tenure and he and Princess Carolyne took up separate residences. Thereafter Liszt still taught, composed, conducted and played the piano in public occasionally. Some of his best and most experimental works were yet to be written down. But the party was over. Liszt’s music gradually disappeared from concert programs. In 1870 he considered suicide and by his death in 1886 he was all but forgotten. It was in the 1920s before his works were completely published, but students were by then discouraged from studying his music lest it corrupt their morals. Only in the past decade has the attempt been made systematically and critically to evaluate his oeuvre. Today, as a composer, he is newer to us than Telemann.

The new LW system of numbering Liszt’s works as debuted in the New Grove may be more complete and up to date, but lists the many newly discovered bon-bons mixed in among the larger masterpieces with no sense of scale. And it has another problem: it purports to arrange works in the order of composition by the earliest date of any manuscripts, rather than the date of completion, and in doing so sacrifices the convenience of traditional numbering systems which most cataloguing systems try to preserve. There is a wisdom in listing works in order of publication and this has not been augmented but simply discarded. So with LW we have gained a spurious and possibly specious precision. This point is probably best discussed extensively elsewhere.

Paul Shoemaker

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