This is the third volume of the continuing Naxos project
to record the thirteen symphonic poems of Franz Liszt. The
first two volumes were also conducted by Michael Halász and
are available on Naxos 8.550487 and 8.553355.
A New Zealand
Orchestra is performing the works of a Hungarian-born composer
who was a major protagonist in the New German School of Music?
There’s no need to worry. Although an orchestra may have
a tradition of playing a home-composer’s
music it certainly doesn’t have the monopoly on delivering
first-class interpretations. I now believe that holding onto
these blinkered principles for many years only deprived me
of enjoying many superbly performed works. Examples of excellent
recorded performances recently heard include Beethoven from
Nashville, Tennessee; Mahler and Shostakovich from Australia;
Bernstein from New Zealand; Barber from Scotland; J.S. Bach
from Japan; Shostakovich from Italy and Rimsky-Korsakov from
Malaysia. Now I can confidently add Liszt symphonic poems played by a New Zealand
Orchestra to the roll.
During the 1840s and 1850s Liszt was primarily responsible
for creating the genre of the symphonic poem (sinfonische
dichtung) - a cycle of single-movement orchestral works.
In the symphonic poem the score is programmatic, developing
material that is pictorial, literary or even based on an
idea to suggest an emotion or scene in musical terms.
Liszt’s first symphonic poem was Ce qu'on entend
sur la montagne (What is heard on the mountain)
which is based on the poem of the same name by Victor Hugo.
It has a rather convoluted history. During his Weimar years
Liszt completed the score in 1849, which was orchestrated
by his assistant Joachim Raff, who also orchestrated a
second version in 1850. A final version was written and
orchestrated by Liszt himself in 1857.
Here Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne (track 2)
is convincing and purposeful. The opening sections from 0.00-6.03
are dense and cacophonous dominated by heavy brass and low
strings. The entrance of the harp at 7.29 heralds a passage
of relative calm. At 10.00-12.25 I enjoyed the extended agitated
section that could easily represent an impending storm. Also
notable is the highly effective brass episode from 13.44
that is replaced by the woodwind at 14.20-14.47 and then
by the strings at 14.48-15.27. I believe the attractive short
section at 16.00-16.26 could easily represent birdsong. To
my ears the harp at 17.04-17.15 introduces a brief and persuasive
seascape effect followed by birdsong once again at 17.15-17.42
on the woodwind. At 18.21 Halász provides a thrilling adventure
that intensifies on the brass laden homeward journey.
In 1853 Liszt composed Festklänge (Festival
Sounds) which was his seventh symphonic poem. We are
told little about the work other than that it was inspired
by the vain prospect of marriage to Princess Carolyne zu
Sayn-Wittgenstein, a Polish heiress, who was the estranged
wife of the Russian Prince Nicholas.
In Festklänge (track 1) Liszt appears eager to
impress with extravagant and repeated orchestral effects.
Halász and the NZSO try their best in this challenging romantic
repertoire but the uneven quality and inspiration of Liszt’s
scoring makes achieving a coherent flow a difficult assignment.
I loved the muted strings from 10.31 to 11.08 followed by
a layer of woodwind at l1.09-11.28 that to me evokes a Mendelssohnian
mood of fairies, elves and woodland glades, an effect repeated
at 12.51-13.37. Most appealing is the short waltz-like episode
at 13.38-14.04. From 16.50 Michael Halász most impressively
cranks up a dense orchestral climax.
The eleventh symphonic poem Hunnenschlacht (Battle
of the Huns) was composed in 1857 in response to a
fresco by the painter Wilhelm von Kaulbach. The score represents
the horrific battle at the gates of Rome between the Christian
Emperor Theodoric and the pagan King Attila the Hun.
A strong case is made for Hunnenschlacht (track
3) with an exciting reading. Surely intended to represent
the disturbing chaos of battle, the vigorous and robust opening
section gives the impression that a terrifying pursuit is
in progress. The brief passages for woodwind with plucked
strings add colour at 2.16-2.22 and 2.55-3.02. Short brass
outbursts at 4.08-4-13 and 4.29-4.41 are extremely successful.
I enjoyed the effective glimpse of optimism at 5.47-6.07,
followed by an orchestral climax at 6.08-6.20. The introduction
of the solo organ with its hymn at 6.29-6.47; 7.07-7.21 and
at 7.44-8.84 are high points. I loved the woodwind passages,
that increase in length, between 9.36-10.57. From 11.44 the
orchestra builds in intensity and the launch of the organ
at 12.27, so evocative of the conclusion to the Saint-Saëns Symphony
No. 3 ‘Organ’, serves to enhance the excitement.
Liszt’s superb score ends in triumph at 14.14.
Overall these are fine performances that are high on
commitment and long on character. Providing the appropriate
momentum consistently seemed especially challenging for Halász
in the first and seventh poems, where I would have preferred
an increased fluidity to the playing. One senses some hesitancy
in these densely textured and unforgiving scores that can
seem heavy going at times. Overall the New Zealand woodwind
are to be congratulated for their pleasing contribution.
I did however have reservations about the unity of some of
the brass playing at several points in Festklänge.
The clear and well-balanced sound is
of a high standard as are the booklet notes provided by Keith
I do not have any recommendable versions of these three Symphonic
Poems in my collection. However, the recordings that
are most likely to be encountered are available in a 5
CD set of Liszt’s works for orchestra performed by the
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Kurt Masur on EMI Classics
(7243 574521 20). An alternative also recommended to me
is the five disc set of Liszt’s complete Symphonic Poems
from the Budapest Symphony Orchestra under Arpad Joó on
Halász and the NZSO prove sterling advocates for these
highly colourful and eventful, if often overlooked, symphonic
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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