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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Symphonic Poems - Volume 5
Eine Symphonie zu Dantes Divina Commedia (1856) [42:06]
Deux Légendes (1863) [19:10]
Gillian Keith (soprano)
Ladies’ Voices of the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. New Broadcasting House, Manchester, September-October 2008. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN10524 [61:29]
Experience Classicsonline

Liszt’s orchestral works don’t often get a fair hearing. Criticised then, as now, for being structurally weak and inept or overblown in their orchestration, they have sunk into relative obscurity compared to his more celebrated piano works. This latest in a series of discs devoted to Liszt’s symphonic poems therefore provides a good opportunity to reassess the composer’s orchestral output, although in the final analysis, the jury is still out.

The main attraction, occupying two-thirds of the disc, is Liszt’s Dante Symphony - or A Symphony on Dante’s Divine Comedy to give it its full title. Conceived as early as the 1830s, the symphony was finally completed in 1856 and dedicated to his future son-in-law and musical adviser on the project, Richard Wagner.

The BBC Philharmonic and Gianandrea Noseda make sterling work of what is a rather uneven work. The sound quality is superb throughout, with crystal clear acoustics and the orchestra placed forward enough to pick out individual aspects of Liszt’s orchestration.

The first movement of the symphony depicts the torments of Dante’s Inferno, focusing in the central section on the fate of the adulterous lovers Paolo and Francesca da Rimini. The parallels with Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini of 1876 are clear: lugubrious brass and woodwind, swirling chromaticism depicting the descent to hell, and yearning strings and harp to represent the lovers. The BBC Philharmonic paint a detailed picture, with only the brass sounding a little too distant and subdued.

The second movement (Purgatorio) demonstrates how Liszt often came unstuck over matters of form. The melodic themes for most of the movement are plain and overstretched, although in describing the long wait for heaven, this was perhaps Liszt’s intention. For the listener, though, the central section (tracks 6 and 7) sags heavily until the final sung Magnificat. This section - predicting the rise of the spirit towards heaven - is genuinely uplifting, and sung beautifully by female members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with the briefest of solos from soprano Gillian Keith. There are even touches of Berlioz here - whose Requiem and Te Deum were composed in 1837 and 1849 - from the future Abbé of Weimar.

The Two Legends at the end of the disc are clearly time fillers, although not very satisfactory ones. St Francis of Assisi: The Sermon to the Birds and St Francis of Paola Walking on the Waves are familiar works for solo piano, and were also orchestrated (but not published) in 1863. The first legend uses plenty of flute and woodwind in rather obvious imitation of birds. Key changes and alternating string parts indicate that the piece would probably sound a lot more interesting on piano only. The second legend is more satisfying and calls on larger forces, including horns and trombones. It moves as an extended crescendo towards a rousing march (presumably representing St Frances walking on the waves). Although both pieces are interesting as a footnotes to Liszt’s orchestral output, they are instantly forgettable.

John-Pierre Joyce


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