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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Tasso, Lament and Triumph (1851) [20:16]
Les Préludes (1853) [16:26]
Mazeppa (1851) [15:52]
Orpheus (1854) [10:17]
Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra/Michel Plasson
rec. 1994

During the 1850s, when he worked as kapellmeister at Weimar, Liszt composed a series of twelve ‘symphonic poems’ - a thirteenth followed later. In doing so he invented the term itself. Les Préludes, the third of these works, was begun in 1848 and then revised a few years later, the final version dating from 1853. It soon became what it has remained ever since: one of his best-loved compositions.
It is not hard to understand why. The music relies on Liszt’s favoured principle of development, the ‘metamorphosis of themes’, and the close organic unity is allied to distinctive melodic invention, to create a vivid orchestral environment. Although he was relatively inexperienced as an orchestral composer and sought the help of his friend Joachim Raff, the instrumental colourings are imaginative and add a great deal to the musical experience. These abundant strengths are clear enough in this well recorded and well played account under the baton of the French conductor Michel Plasson. At the same time, the rival recording on BIS conducted by Frühbeck de Burgos with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (BIS CD1117), gains from a particularly fine and ambient BIS recording.
The other compositions in Plasson’s collection include the under-rated Tasso, a work on the large scale which finds Liszt at the highest level of his inspiration. Perhaps the more extended scale challenges listeners as well as performers, but both the Berlin Classics and BIS performances are excellent. Tchaikovsky admired this piece, by the way, to the extent that he used it as a model when he composed his own Francesca da Rimini. The likeness is uncanny. Plasson’s final apotheosis, the triumph that follows the lament, has blazing brass and the requisite sense of musical fulfilment.
Mazeppa is another masterwork, though not without its vulgarities, which include a banal fanfare theme signifying the hero’s triumph. But play it for all it is worth, as here, and the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. There is a celebrated recording with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG 0289 447 415 2), but fine though that is, the Dresden orchestra plays well and the recorded sound is more sophisticated in Plasson’s Berlin Classics version. This was recorded in 1994, but the identity of the recording venue is absent from the details on the disc, nor is there any information about the music, save for a listing of tracks. In a competitive market-place in the budget sector this penny-pinching approach is surely a misjudgement. Poor presentation is hardly a help to anyone, even the company itself.
When it comes to the final item, Orpheus, Frühbeck de Burgos on BIS again scores strongly. As the title would suggest, this is a particularly lyrical composition, nicely shaped and well played by both the Berlin (Burgos) and Dresden (Plasson) orchestras, whose wind principals in particular emerge with credit. In either case the recorded sound captures the atmosphere with much sensitivity.
Terry Barfoot


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