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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Symphonic Poems, Vol. 3

No. 7: Festklänge, S101/R418 (1853) [18:57]
No. 1: Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne (What is heard on the mountain), S95/R412 (1849, rev. 1850, 1877) [29:13]
No. 11: Hunnenschlacht (Battle of the Huns), S105/R422 (1857) [14:14]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Michael Halász
rec. 24-26 May 2005, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand. DDD
NAXOS 8.557846 [62:35]

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-composers 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 Anderson.
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 Hungaroton HCD12677-81.
Halász and the NZSO prove sterling advocates for these highly colourful and eventful, if often overlooked, symphonic poems.
Michael Cookson


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