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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Harmonies Poètiques et Réligieuses (1845-52)
Ave Maria
Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude
Pensée des morts
Pater noster
Hymne de l’enfant à son réveil
Miserere d’après Palestrina
Andante lagrimoso
Cantique d’amour

Steven Osborne, piano
Rec. 2003
HYPERION CDA67445 [2CDs: 83.48]


The Harmonies Poètiques et Réligieuses comprise ten pieces which play for well over an hour. The music was composed and variously revised over a period of more than ten years through to the early 1850s, when Liszt gave up his itinerant lifestyle and settled as Kapellmeister at Weimar. This was the time when he gave himself over to final, published versions of the piano works that had evolved during the earlier phase of his career. Of this phenomenon the Harmonies are a particularly important example.

However, over the years this music has been indifferently served in the recorded music catalogues. Some of the pieces, and arguably the best ones, have become well known in their own right, while others have remained shrouded in obscurity. Therefore we have every reason to be grateful to any pianist who decides to bring this important music before the public.

Unlike the recent recording by the American pianist David Barela (DGB Records 29757 28022 - review), Steven Osborne and Hyperion give us the complete collection. The performances are recorded on two CDs at a price that takes account of the fact that together they offer only 83 minutes of music. This is an awkward length, to be sure, only just above the maximum that can be accommodated on a single CD.

Steven Osborne has been particularly well served by the Hyperion recording. In this music such things are important, since Liszt so frequently opts for slow tempos. The quality of piano sound is therefore put under extreme scrutiny, but the Hyperion recording emerges from that scrutiny with the highest acclaim. The excellent sound and ambience make a special impression.

The music is performed with the utmost conviction. Osborne’s assured playing achieves miracles of sonorous satisfaction in terms of piano sound and textures. In my earlier review of David Barela’s disc I commented that ‘at extremes of tempo the great artists can really make their mark, with displays of dexterity or of concentration, as the case may be’. Steven Osborne comes through this trial with aplomb.

There are some very demanding pieces in this collection, not least the most famous movement, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude. Not only does this feature the slow tempi favoured in so many of these pieces, it also requires the utmost concentration and sense of large-scale structure; its performing time approaches twenty minutes. So all praise to Osborne for not only providing some satisfying keyboard textures and sonorities but also giving the music a larger scale vision and a sense of direction.

The two discs come in an attractive slim case with full documentation, including an extended and perceptive note by Tim Parry, which deals with specific pieces as well as the broader view. This is another reason for placing this Hyperion disc at the top of the list of recommendations.

Terry Barfoot


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