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Franz LISZT (1811–1886)
Hungarian Rhapsodies, S359/R441 (orch. comp. and Doppler)
No. 1 in F minor (orig. No. 14) [11:33]
No. 2 in D minor (orig. No. 2 in C sharp minor [11:05]
No. 3 in D major (orig. No. 6 in D flat major [8:31]
No. 4 in D minor (orig. No. 12 in C sharp minor [12:02]
No. 5 in E minor [10:53]
No. 6 in D Major (orig. No. 9 in E flat major [13:50]
Staatskapelle Weimar/Arthur Fagen
rec. Weimarhalle, Weimar, Germany, 17-19 May 2006.
NAXOS 8.570230 [67:53]

Once upon a time Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies were very popular, mostly in their orchestral garb. When I started to be interested in classical music around 1960 I found at my local library a book entitled “Music on Records”. It was printed in 1951, just when the LP records started to be produced but in the main it was 78 rpms that were listed. At the end of the book there were some lists to help beginners and one of them had the header “The First Acquisitions”. Twenty-one titles were listed, one of them was Rhapsody No. 2 and the recommended recording was Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra (Col. LX 1045). Shortly after this I bought my first record player and joined the Concert Hall Record Club, where members every month were offered a specially selected recording at a special price. My first offer was Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra conducted by Hans Swarowsky. Not all six of them were included but No. 2 was and I invested in it. The price was the equivalent of £2, which was a lot of money for a poor student. This was my first classical LP and since the rest of the collection was a handful of EPs, I played the LP frequently – and so I did for quite some time. The collection grew but this, my first love, had a special place in my heart. Everyone knows what eventually happened: new and fresher loves popped up and poor Liszt was tucked away in some corner, sitting there like the old teddy-bear, worn and threadbare.
After almost 45 years of oblivion the present disc appeared on a “discs for review” list. I placed my bid, curious to see how I would react after all these years. It was with a certain amount of nostalgia but more a sense of joy and admiration for the melodies, often from Hungarian folklore, and their orchestral treatment. Originally they were composed for piano, 15 in all, and published in 1850. Towards the end of his life Liszt produced another four, but it was from the original 15 that he selected these six for orchestration. Franz Liszt’s part in this project has never been completely clarified. He stated in his will of 1860 that they were orchestrated by Franz Doppler and revised by Liszt, and he added a compliment to Doppler on the work. It is easy to understand why. The treatment is colourful, sometimes like Liszt’s own orchestral works – Liszt came rather late to writing for orchestra – with broad brush strokes and bright colours. The brass, especially the trumpets, are frequently exposed, but there are many examples of delicate scoring, such as in No. 4. This was dedicated to the great Joseph Joachim, and consequently includes a passage for solo violin, but the harp is also prominent in this piece.
Structurally they go from a slow introduction to a lively finale but within this frame there are many options, so there is scope for a great deal of variety. The success of these rhapsodies depends upon the conductor’s and the musicians’ ability to convey the rhythms, to find the right lilt and that special Hungarian tinge. Hans Swarowsky, possibly better known today as teacher to a number of great conductors – Abbado, Mehta and Sinopoli among them – was a prolific recorder, mostly on minor labels. Hungarian-born but active most of his life in Vienna, he had the right instinct for these rhapsodies – he also recorded Brahms’ Hungarian dances. Traditionally the Vienna orchestras have a lot of musicians with Hungarian ancestry, and my recollection of his recording is one of grace and strength in combination rhythmic abandon. Technically the recording was at best workmanlike with one-dimensional sound, rather congested at climaxes. I don’t know if Arthur Fagen has any Hungarian connections – he was born and trained in New York. His Weimar orchestra may have the credentials of having had Liszt as their conductor between 1848 and 1861, but that was quite some time ago and hardly affects the present day players’ attitude to Liszt. They are however an excellent body of players and have made a number of highly regarded recordings in a wide field. Even though I can’t quite liberate myself from the impact of Swarowsky’s recording, I have very little reason to find fault with Fagen. With all six rhapsodies well played this is a good and cheap way of getting to know these entertaining works – even though the piano originals are first priority.
Göran Forsling


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