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

Mazeppa S. 100. Symphonic Poem No.6 (1854) [16:33]
Héroïde funèbre  S. 102. Symphonic Poem No. 8 (1857) [22:41]
Prometheus S.99. Symphonic Poem No. 5 (1850) [12:27]
Festklänge S. 102. Symphonic Poem No. 7 (1854) [19:07]
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. 12-13 December 2006, Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester
CHANDOS CHAN 10417 [71:24]


Liszt first coined the phrase Symphonische Dichtung in 1853 to describe works inspired by poetry, painting or historical characters. Of course he wasn’t the first to write programme music – Beethoven did it with his Pastoral Symphony in 1808 and Berlioz did it with his Symphonie Fantastique in 1830 – but unlike his predecessors Liszt sometimes adds a philosophical framework as well. It’s a gamble because the music has to bear some extra-musical weight that can – and often does – impede the free flow of musical ideas.

That is why Liszt’s symphonic poems really need the strongest and most sympathetic of advocates if they are to succeed in either sphere. Mazeppa, based on the fourth of Liszt’s Études d’exécution transcendante for piano, is a good old potboiler about illicit love, cruel punishment and just revenge. It is Liszt at his most descriptive, without the cumbersome philosophical bolt-ons, and the BBC Phil respond to the challenge with some heroic brass and percussion playing. With subject matter as raw and atavistic as this one might expect rather more red-blooded music and music-making but that just isn’t Liszt’s – or Noseda’s – way.

And that, in a nutshell, is what this disc delivers – playing that is never less than accomplished, occasionally spectacular and rarely moving. Admittedly Liszt is part of the problem here, with orchestral textures that are apt to thicken and coagulate and. thin material that is simply not substantial enough to generate musical momentum. Just listen to the overlong final peroration in Mazeppa which, despite some sizzling orchestral playing, teeters on the edge of bombast.

The Héroïde funèbre of 1857 is perhaps most similar in its sound-world to Berlioz’s Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale of 1840, although there is little to be triumphant about here. Conceived as a hymn to the transfiguring power of Art, this three-movement funeral march is pretty bleak. The mood of the opening Lento lugubre, with its bass and military side drums, is briefly lightened in the P lento, where a noble melody rises from amidst the devastation to be joined by augmented timpani and brass. As ever Noseda seems to hold back, tempering nobility with stoicism. Even when the bells ring out and the work moves to its ambiguous close it is clear that this victory, hard fought, is hard won.

The theme of ‘suffering and apotheosis’ - Liszt’s own words - is carried through to Prometheus of 1850. The players easily capture the ‘sultry, stormy and tempestuous mode of expression’ (Liszt again) with an arresting staccato opening; but, oh, how one longs for them to really let rip in those big tuttis. Chandos can usually be relied upon to provide a deep, sonorous soundstage with plenty of bite and detail but here the sound is much too claustrophobic, adding to the general air of bloat and congestion. Sadly Prometheus is the work that promises the most yet delivers the least. For genuine Promethean fire Scriabin’s Prométhée (1910) is altogether more visceral. Try Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra on EMI 5677202. Now there’s an example of strong advocacy aided by music-making of incandescent power.

Festklänge (1854) is the only symphonic poem that isn’t based on a programme. That said Liszt referred to it as ‘my wedding music’, its central polonaise inspired by his intended betrothal to the Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein. Liszt made quite a few cuts to the score at a later stage but it is the original version that is played here.

At just over 19 minutes the not very festive Festklänge is one of the longest works on this disc – and it shows. The close recording, the dragging tempi and the succession of rhetorical flourishes is more than the music can bear. Noseda’s approach is just too prosaic, crying out as it does for more joie de vivre, more light and air.

If you must have orchestral Liszt then Masur on EMI’s double fforte label and Haitink on Philips Duo are good alternatives, generally well played and well recorded. But one cannot pretend this repertoire is Liszt at anywhere near his best – for that you need to look to his piano pieces – and with performances as resolutely earthbound as this you will need to search elsewhere for real musical inspiration.

Dan Morgan


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