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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
The Complete Piano Music

CDs 1–6 Études and early works
CDs 7–19 Major original compositions
CDs 20–29 Dances, marches, transcriptions of Liszt’s own works
CDs 30–36 Pieces on national themes
CDs 37–49 Operatic fantasies, transcriptions and paraphrases
CDs 50–61 Concert transcriptions
CDs 62–69 Beethoven transcriptions
CDs 70–79 Schubert transcriptions
CDs 80–94 Rare works, new discoveries
CDs 95–98 Music for piano and orchestra
Leslie Howard (piano)
rec. various venues, 1985-2009
For a detailed track-listing see the Hyperion website
HYPERION CDS44501/98 [99 CDs: 7320:26]

Experience Classicsonline

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.
Rob Barnett


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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