In the history of recorded classical music certain sets stand
head, shoulders and top hat above the throng. RCA’s Rachmaninov,
EMI’s RVW and Elgar, Chandos’s Walton and Grainger Editions,
DG’s complete Beethoven, Bis’s Sibelius Edition, CBS’s Mahler
Bernstein, Decca’s Solti Ring and Philips’ Mozart Edition.
Hyperion already has a place at the Olympian table with its
Simpson symphonies and Schubert Lieder presided over by Graham
Johnson. Now the gathered company need to make room for Hyperion’s
complete Liszt from Leslie Howard. The project was of such epic
proportions that the first volume was issued as an LP. The book
reminds us that when originally brought out there were 57 volumes
representing 94 CDs, a bonus disc and three supplementary volumes
comprising 4 discs in total.
It used to be that reviewers faced with a set of such ineffable
scale and delectable moment could take for granted that it would
at least command the budget of the public library sector. Now
public authorities – at least in the UK – are having to contemplate
branch closures in order to keep within decimated budgets. It’s
a market that cannot any longer be taken for granted. Numbers
of public libraries with large-scale and serious classical CD
sections have been diminishing for many years. I can recall,
as a student in Bristol in 1971-75, using the astonishingly
wide-ranging LP department of the Bristol City Council Central
Library near the Cathedral. That was then! Even so the library
and archive sector has not evaporated completely – one can expect
music schools, colleges and academies to go for this.
Fortunately there are other markets and some of these are bound
to be stimulated by 2011 being Liszt 200 year. Those other markets
include the Liszt absolutist who will have to have this set
despite having bought the individual discs as they were issued.
Other Lisztians or proto-Lisztians will have picked up the odd
Hyperion over the last twenty years and will now see that they
can get the complete arc of the composer’s piano heritage at
the cost of about £1.65 per disc. Then again there are emerging
generations of pianists who will find this a source of delight,
inspiration and instruction. It’s a chance to make informed
choices about ringing the changes on the top thirty Liszt piano
solos in recital. Radio stations intent on a ‘Lisztathon’ celebration
will find this material invaluable. The set will also draw in
collectors of major boxes which usually also have all the attractions
of the unit cost of the discs ebbing as low as they are ever
likely to go.
The 128 page tall-format booklet sits in the box atop the rank
of 99 colour-coded sleeves. It comprises a disc by disc list
of contents (with titles and Searle numbers), a seven page ‘intro’
to the life of Liszt and an essay on Howard’s engagement with
the Liszt project. You also have indices by S number and alphabetically
by title. These are all linked to the volume number and track.
For timings and date of recording sessions you must go to the
sleeves. You will look in vain for recording locations though
Mr Howard does tell us that most were made in churches. There’s
no work-by-work commentary; for that you need to go to the Hyperion
website where all the booklets for the discs as individually
issued are available as PDFs. These were largely written by
Howard although there are a few from Gerald Larner. Those S
references are the numbers accorded by composer and Liszt authority
Humphrey Searle in his catalogue as updated by Sharon Winklhofer,
Michael Short and Leslie Howard. The essay is presented in English,
French, German and Italian. There are also photos of Liszt as
well as other portraits. It is typical of Hyperion that their
website also offers the texts of the poems that inspired Liszt
in particular pieces. The Petrarch sonnets on Vol. 10 are treated
in this way.
This box is very much designed for ease of use. The colour coding
categories and sub-categories within each family colour are
listed on the base of the box, on the lip of the box as the
lid is opened and on the back of the booklet. One of the few
criticisms is that the lid is already beginning to show signs
of wear and tear.
As far as I am aware no-one has come even close to the Leslie
Howard’s achievement in recording the complete works. I recall
that Grant Johanessen (1921-2005), based in the USA, recorded
privately many LPs and then cassettes (these, sadly, never travelled
far or at least not in quantity) of Liszt’s piano music but
that’s about it. The ubiquitous Naxos have their own Liszt series
(32 CDs issued so far) but this is not yet complete and is in
any event a project involving a wide span of pianists rather
than a single individual.
The gain in comparison with original individual CDs is in price,
in saved shelf space and in having one place to go for all Liszt’s
piano music. Price-saving would conservatively be the difference
between Hyperion’s Liszt centenary offer of £7 per disc and
Hyperion’s own direct price of £2.50 per disc. Amazon have the
set for the equivalent of £1.65 per disc. What do you ‘sacrifice’?
You do not get any notes on individual works: title, date, timing
and S number – that’s your lot. One may download, at Hyperion's
website, all of the liner-notes and booklet covers which
accompanied each CD release over the years. If you must have
the individual volumes then you can get them though I note that
Vols. 2, 28, 42, 51 and 52 are temporarily out-of-stock with
fresh supplies announced as due in March 2011.
I have perforce had to take a meagre sampling across the 98
discs to have any hope of completing the review within a reasonable
period after release. Take the Eighth Etude from the
Douze Etudes S136. This passes in a tempestuous storm
which only betrays its callow date of origin by its rather undistinguished
material. On the other hand its successor in the sequence is
polished, placid and Chopin-like. The last of the six discs
devoted to the Etudes and Early Works includes a precursor
to the Mephisto mood so beloved of the composer. It takes the
form of Ab Irato S143 in its 1852 second version; its
darkly furious vortex does not preclude serenity along the way.
Superbly done. The Chanson du Béarn of 1844 is S236/2.
This finds a more peaceable demeanour suggestive of a pilgrim
happening upon some calming vista. The pulse is nicely slowed
and the contours are rounded by a slow carillon. On CD13 we
encounter the rather grown-up Hymne du Matin (tr. 4)
from the Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses S172a in
Howard’s own performing version. This is a fantastic piece and
is full of richly rippling deliquescent melody. On CD19 Wiegenlied
is paced to match the hushed and magical demeanour of the
music. The opening rather pre-echoes the start of Mahler’s Adagietto.
The Festvorspiel S226 on CD21 has a sort of strummed
pomp and no little sense of heroic self-importance. The Ad
benedictus from Responsorien und Antiphonen S30 is
much more subdued and introspective as expected from its devotional
background. Fascinating to discover this series written ‘for
private meditation’. From 1846 comes the Magyar Dalok and
Magyar Rapszodiak - the mulch from which the more famous
Hungarian Rhapsodies were derived. Sampling No. 21 (tr.
6 on CD32) one detects the hallmarks of those tense and revealingly
volatile folk voices – dreamy and then feral and unleashed.
There are thirteen discs comprising Liszt’s operatic extravaganzas.
The 1850 Pastorale from Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète is
by turns moonlit, dreamy and finally dazzlingly pulsating –
no wonder the ladies swooned. It ends in a pummelling salvo.
The three movements, of which the Pastorale is the last,
run to close to 45 minutes. The Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven
are well enough known in relation to the symphonies if little
heard in practice. I seem to recall the early Teldec LP recordings
being made by Cyprien Katsaris. I decided to try instead the
Beethoven Grand Septuor S465. This is pointed and played
with fidelity to the Beethovenian spirit. You could never say
that the composer had taken Beethoven as a platform and exploited
the opportunity to his own ends. On CD 67 the last track is
the Marche Funèbre from Beethoven’s Eroica – this
is taken with immense and even italicised gravitas by Howard;
risks are taken. There are ten discs of Schubert transcriptions.
Taking Die Forelle S564 on CD 73: this is a free and
sometimes enjoyably angular and awkward rhapsody around the
famous chuckling tune. On CD 85 I tried the Album-Leaf in
A flat Portugal S166b. It turned out to be an unassuming
and unmemorable little piece. The last five discs in the set
comprise the music for piano and orchestra. Of these I snapped
directly toward Totentanz – a long-time favourite of
mine even above the two numbered piano concertos. I recall playing
to death a cassette of a broadcast by Ronald Smith with the
BBCNSO conducted by Norman Del Mar. Excellent – this Hyperion
version has a positively satanic brass blare and a thunderously
impetuous mien as we are swept back and forth by the hot winds
of the Dies Irae. It’s sensibly tracked into seven episodes,
each directly accessible. The orchestral sound is grateful to
the orchestra and piano – exemplary balance throughout. I loved
the louring and leering brass. This music pairs nicely with
Berlioz’s Fantastique and Mussorgsky’s Night on the
Bare Mountain. The De profundis is in six movements
with a delicious Polacca movement – not to be missed.
As for Malediction on CD 96 the defiant curse is unleashed
with some vehemence but in large part this is revenge worked
up in meditation and reflection. CD 99 is the shortest disc
at 17:39 and comprises the rarely heard Ungarische Zigeunerweisen
S714 which were written by Sophie Menter (1846-1918) with
Liszt’s collaboration. Quite evidently the orchestration is
by Tchaikovsky. Lots of fun here and quite a piece to try, sight
unseen, on your unwitting classical music friends. These discs
are very nicely and aptly done by the idiomatic and lovingly
recorded Budapest Symphony Orchestra conducted by Karl Anton
Rickenbacher. The Ungarische Zigeunerweisen would go
nicely in concert with Tchaikovsky’s Concert Fantasia.
It is a mark of Hyperion’s delectable ambition that no sooner
have they finished the Howard series than they launch another
Liszt edition – the complete The Complete Songs, Vol. 1 CDA67782
with Matthew Polenzani (tenor), Julius Drake (piano). Now we
also have Marc-André Hamelin’s Fantasie und Fuge über das
Thema B-A-C-H S529ii, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude
S173/3, Venezia e Napoli; Gondoliera, Canzone,
Tarantella and Sonate ‘Piano Sonata in B minor’ S178
all on CDA67760. Then again they never allowed the keyboard
focus to prevent obstruct forays into the choral music (Missa
Choralis and Via Crucis) with the Corydon Singers/Best
on CDA67199. There are also isolated piano discs of the Années
de pèlerinage, Suisse (CDA67424) and Liszt: Sonata, Ballades
and Polonaises (CDA67085) from Stephen Hough, the Harmonies
poétiques et religieuses from Steven Osborne (CDA67445)
and Marc-André Hamelin in a Liszt recital (CDA66874) as well
another of Paganini Studies and Schubert Marches (CDA67370).
Nikolai Demidenko can be heard in the Sonata on CDH55184. Though
now deleted there’s also the Liszt Music for Violin and Piano
from Chris Nicholls and Jonathan Ayerst on CDA66743 which
can be had via the label’s Archive Service. Very soon these
will be joined by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov
on CDA67856 in a fascinating programme of Von der Wiege bis
zum Grabe, S107, Trois Odes funèbres, S112 and Zwei
Episoden aus Lenaus Faust, S110.
Howard brings an archivist’s rigour and a high priest’s fervour
to this astonishing project.