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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Fantasie and Fugue on “Ad Nos Salutarem Undam” (from Le Prophète by Meyerbeer) S259, R380 (1850) [16.05]
Prelude and Fugue on B.A.C.H., S260, R381 (1870) [12.01]
Variations on “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen”, S179/673, R382 (1862) [17.02]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Four Sketches (for the pedal piano), Op.56 (1845) [14.14]
Jennifer Bate (organ, Royal Albert Hall, London, UK)
rec. 1977/8. DDD

Comparison recordings:

Zsuzsa Elekes, Rieger organ Matthias Church, Budapest Hungaroton HCD 12749
Jean-Pierre Leguay, organ of Notre Dame, Euromuses CD 2014
Simon Preston, organ at Westminster Abbey DG 415 139-2
Lionel Rogg, organ at St. Pierre de Genève, Electrola SQ quadrophonic LP C 063-12 800 S260
Jean-Pierre Leguay, organ of Notre Dame, Euromuses CD 2014
Jean Gillou, organ of St. Eustache, Paris. Dorian DOR 90134
Gábor Lehotka, Jehmlich organ at Kecskmét Hungaroton HCD 12562
Lionel Rogg, organ at St. Pierre de Genève, Electrola SQ quad. LP C 063-12 800
Markus Groh, piano version. Avie AV 2097 - see review

Jean-Pierre Leguay, organ of Notre Dame, Euromuses CD 2014
Gábor Lehotka, Jehmlich organ at Kecskmét Hungaroton HCD 12562
Daniel Chorzempa, organ Pentatone PTC 5186 127 Hybrid SACD - see review
Michael Ponti, piano version S673 Naxos 8.550408
Jennifer Bate is famous as the world’s greatest interpreter of Olivier Messiaen, whose innermost thoughts she shares, whose music has no mysteries she does not divine, no subtleties to her impenetrable. Completely on the other hand, these Liszt performances are ultimately theatrical and extroverted. The instrument is huge and reverberant; no contrast is too great, no flight of virtuosity too ecstatic or too vertiginous, no registration too raucous, no tempo too startling. Liszt himself would have leapt to his feet cheering upon hearing her play his music.
The only reasonable comparisons, as shown above, are to the great French cathedral organs and their tenders, and to them she and her instrument yield nothing. If the French organs melt one like butter in the heat of the glory of God, this English organ is so ennobling and majestic an experience as to recreate the Empire in an instant. This music has never sounded so good, and will never sound any better — period.
The jewelcase notes give the incorrect Searle number of the Fantasie and Fugue on B.A.C.H.; the correct numbers are given above.
The Schumann pieces were in fact originally written for the pianoforte with pedals, an instrument known to both Mozart and Busoni. The purpose of such instruments, which actually existed even in Bach’s time, was to enable the practising of organ pieces without the expense of paying an organ blower. The pieces are interesting and varied and in stark contrast in style to the Liszt. I had never heard them before. Ms. Bate’s performance makes much use of staccato touch — it sounds easy but is oh so difficult — to remain authentic to the piano sound of the originals. In the louder passages she makes use of trumpets and bombardes which, again, makes an uncanny simulation of loud piano chords. All in all she captures perfectly the fleeting changes of Schumann’s moody composition style as she did the style of Liszt, two of whose pieces on this disk also exist in piano versions. These Liszt pieces have separate performance traditions and the versions for the two instruments, originally the same, have diverged considerably with time, each allowing insights into the understanding of the other. Ponti is not the best piano version of the Weinen, Klagen variations I’ve heard, but it is in print. Pianist Marcus Groh does a superb job with the Fantasie and Fugue on B.A.C.H., better than I ever thought it could be played on the piano.
Preston and Elekes play the AD NOS fantasy on large church organs, smaller than Bates’ organ, but closer to the type Liszt most likely actually played. Both of their performances highlight the intricate structure of this fascinating work. In the cavernous spaces of Notre Dame, the music turns to mush — at times very impressive mush it must be said. The “chorale” is not traditional but was composed by Meyerbeer for his opera Le Prophète, hence its authentic sounding churchiness. Considering Liszt’s reputation, when he wrote to Meyerbeer for permission to publish his arrangement, it was rather like asking for permission to send a gift. Meyerbeer, unacquainted with Liszt’s generosity, naturally said yes, and tactfully inquired if payment was required and if so how much. The generous artist Liszt was simply bewildered by this; he was only interested in the music.
Notre Dame is more hospitable to the Weinen, Klagen variations which are slower and rely more on the contrast of huge tragic chords and simple effects and less on dense small-scale counterpoint. Liszt wrote this deeply tragic work with its triumphant chorale finale as his reaction to the death of his son. Lehotka’s church organ performance displays less color, but the Hungarians like to claim they are the true musical heirs of Liszt. The truth is that Liszt was born in a German-speaking part of Hungary, but grew up intellectually in Paris and thought in French for the rest of his life. He needed someone to translate both Hungarian and German for him. He professed Hungarian nationality in later life out of sympathy and personal gratitude but musically owed more to Rossini, Mozart, Schumann and Beethoven than to the Hungarian night-club tunes he pirated for his “Hungarian Rhapsodies”. He never found out they weren’t real folksongs. In contrast to Berlioz, Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn, Liszt was the only major nineteenth century composer of church music who was a convinced, devout Christian. The piano version of S179, at least played by persons other than Liszt himself, is much less effective than the organ version, which depends on the power of swelling sustained chords. Simulating this with piano tremolos just doesn’t make it, however skillfully done.
If you are equipped to play SACDs, the Chorzempa surround sound recording sounds truly wonderful, although Bate gives a slightly better performance, so you make your choice. In using the piano version Searle number, Bate is implying that she has edited her score herself from the piano version and not used the published organ version, but the notes do not clarify this. I think adjustment of noise-shaping routines during mastering would have given the Bate recording cleaner high frequencies.
The 1974 beautiful sounding Lionel Rogg recordings would make a fine 4 channel SACD. Is someone at Pentatone or EMI listening?
Paul Shoemaker


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