Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
The Sound of Weimar
The Authentic Sound of Liszt’s Orchestral Works
Les Préludes, Symphonic Poem No.3, S97 (1854, pub.1856) [15:35]
Orpheus, Symphonic Poem No.4, S98 (1853/4) [10:27]
Ce qu’on entend sur la Montagne (Berg Symphonie), Symphonic Poem No.1, S95 (1850, 1856) [30:12]
Orchester Wiener Akademie/Martin Haselböck
rec. live, Liszt Festival, Raiding, Austria, January 29-31, 2011. DDD
NEW CLASSICAL ADVENTURE NCA60246 [56:34]
Hunnenschlacht, Symphonic Poem No.11, S106 (1857) [16:12]
Hungaria, Symphonic Poem No.9, S104 (1854) [22:53]
Mazeppa, Symphonic Poem No.6, S101 (1854) [18:33]
Orchester Wien Akademie/Martin Haselböck
rec. Raiding, Austria, 29 January to 1 June 2011. DDD.
NEW CLASSICAL ADVENTURE NCA60250 [58:07]
These are the second and third volumes of a project, commenced in the bicentenary year, to record all Liszt’s orchestral works using 19th-century instruments, hence the use of the word ‘authentic’ in the English subtitle and Originalklang in the German. Volume 1 contains the Dante Symphony, S109, and Evocation à la Chapelle Sistine (NCA60234). As we don’t seem to have reviewed that here on MusicWeb International, I listened to it first, courtesy of the Naxos Music Library, where subscribers can also try out Volumes 2 and 3.
I hadn’t encountered Martin Haselböck as a conductor before, though I had heard him play Liszt’s organ music – 5 volumes, also from New Classical Adventure. My benchmark for the Dante Symphony is the performance by Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Phil, the recording which first revealed the quality of this work, now on budget-price Warner Apex (2564 673012 for around £6: Bargain of the Month – see review) or available for download in its earlier Warner Elatus release from amazon.co.uk for £4.99.
Haselböck adopts slightly faster tempi for the outer movements but it’s in the second movement, Purgatorio, that he is considerably faster, without losing any sense of the mixture of despair for the consequences of sin and the hope of redemption; like Dante, Liszt places his emphasis on the hope. György Lehel on Hungaroton HCD11918 takes the movement at a tempo midway between Haselböck and Barenboim, if you’re looking for a compromise, though that’s short value with just the symphony. In any case, I never felt that the new recording was too fast – urgent, yes, which is appropriate, as opposed to what Ian Lace describes as the ‘calm and pensive’ mood of the Barenboim, but not too fast. The Magnificat finale is ethereal. With good recording, this is such a fine start to the series that it gave me high hopes for the next two volumes.
Volume 2 opens with probably the best-known of the symphonic poems, Les Préludes. Here again Haselböck adopts a faster tempo then my comparisons, James Conlon on Warner Classics and Gianandrea Noseda on Chandos – 15:25 against 16:49 (Conlon) and 16:04 (Noseda). Conlon is good but rather stately – writing about the recent reissue of his version on the budget Warner Apex label, Ian Lace describes him as ‘grand and imposing but rather underwhelming’, which I think is about right (2564 66586-1 – see review.) Noseda’s recordings of Liszt have won golden opinions; though the views on some of the volumes here at MusicWeb International have varied, his version of Les Préludes is about as good as they come. Even so, I wanted to push him along a little faster at times. (CHAN10341).
Kurt Masur, on the other hand, takes the work even faster than Haselböck, with an overall timing of 15:07, yet never pushing the more portentous sections, such as the opening, too hard. In many ways this exciting account is my benchmark and it’s available inexpensively on an EMI 7-CD collection. If you subscribe to the invaluable Naxos Music Library, you can hear it there alongside the Noseda and Haselböck recordings, but if you follow the classicsonline.com button to purchase the download at £14.99, be aware that some dealers charge little more for the CD set. Either way, it’s extremely good value for seven CDs. The generously filled single CD where it’s coupled with Tasso, Orpheus and Mazeppa on EMI Encore is no longer available but can be downloaded from hmvdigital.com for £3.49.
Slightly underwhelmed by Noseda and Conlon and somewhat overwhelmed, though not in a pejorative sense, by Masur, I finally turned to Haselböck, listening to him first via the Naxos Music Library in the same quality as I had listened to the other versions. Here you will find another button pointing you to purchase from classicsonline.com as an mp3 download in good (320kb/s) sound, complete with the booklet and all for just £4.99, which seems to be their generous price for all NCA recordings, as opposed to around £12 for the CDs. If I marginally preferred the more vigorous Masur, there was very little in it; I certainly would turn to Haselböck now in preference to Noseda or Conlon.
Even streamed from NML, the NCA sound is more open than the rivals – whether that’s due to the use of 19th-century instruments, Haselböck’s experience as an interpreter of Liszt’s organ music, also for NCA, or the recording quality, I couldn’t say. Perhaps the fact that this is a live recording from the Raiding Festival – though the audience are not audibly noticeable, even at the end – contributes, too.
In Orpheus and Ce qu’on entend, too, Masur sweeps the board with brisk tempi – brisker than Haselböck who, in turn, is faster than Noseda. Once again, Masur is a clear choice, especially at the advantageous price of the 7-CD set, and particularly in Ce qu’on entend, which can seem to outstay its welcome*, yet I find no reason to complain about Haselböck and a great deal to enjoy. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, I don’t mean it to. In the performance of Orpheus Haselböck will have had the advantage of having drawn on his own experience of recording the organ version of this work (NCA60144).
By accident, I presume, Volume 2 matches the contents of the Noseda recording on CHAN10341. Though the Chandos offers considerably better value, with Tasso adding another 19 minutes to the playing time – both NCA albums are rather ungenerous in terms of time – my vote goes to Masur or the new recording.
There is a degree of overlap, too, between NCA’s Volume 3 and Chandos’s Volume 4 on CHAN10490, with Hungaria and Mazeppa in both collections. Once again the Chandos offers much more generous playing time. In these two works Noseda is actually marginally faster than Haselböck, with Masur slightly faster still in the former and considerably so in the latter; I find it hard to choose between them. I’d be happy with any of the three; if you have access to the Naxos Music Library, you may wish to make the three-way comparison for yourself. The music on Volume 3 is less immediate in appeal than les Préludes; though Hungaria, a colourful work, with a rousing ending, is sometimes described as an extended Hungarian Rhapsody, it doesn’t have quite the attraction which that implies.
Mazeppa, retelling the story of the philandering nobleman who was tied naked to his horse’s back before being rescued by Cossacks and chosen as their leader, also has its exciting moments and Haselböck certainly brings out the colourful elements of both scores.
There’s obviously less to be gained by using 19th-century instruments in this repertoire than by employing those of a century or so earlier for music of that period, but I do think that their use here, coupled with Haselböck’s expertise in performing Liszt’s organ music, is a definite advantage.
Good as the NCA recordings sound when streamed from the Naxos Music Library for comparison purposes, they are even better when heard from the CDs. The presentation is not ideal – rather flimsy cardboard gatefold designs of a kind which I’ve found to fall apart in the past, but colourfully illustrated, including a reproduction of the von Kaulbach painting which inspired Hunnenschlacht, and with a fine set of notes. At the risk of seeming finicky, I wonder why the illustration on the cover of Volume 2 is noticeably larger than that on the cover of Volume 3.
If I were now starting to collect all Liszt’s orchestral music, even if I already had the piano concertos, I would be inclined to go for the 7-CD Masur set, not only because it is such an outstanding bargain but also for the generally greater urgency of the performances. There are undoubtedly some longueurs in some of these works, however, and seven CDs may seem too much.
For those who think so, especially those who already have the concertos and, perhaps, some of the symphonic poems, the new series of recordings from NCA offers a very viable alternative and Volume 2 is a good place to begin. For Volume 3, Noseda on Chandos offers a better alternative. The NCA albums are an attractive proposition on CD but even more so as inexpensive downloads from classicsonline.com. I’m also intending to check out more of Haselböck’s NCA recordings of Liszt’s organ music.
I have one more Liszt orchestral suggestion before I close: Ilan Volkov conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in the Funeral Odes, the symphonic poem Von der Wiege bis zur Grabe, S107, and two episodes from Lenau’s Faust, including the first Mephisto Waltz, on Hyperion CDA67856. We seem not to have reviewed this when it appeared in 2011, so let me redress the balance now and give it a strong recommendation.
* especially on a recording like that of Michel Plasson with the Dresden Philharmonic, who drags it out to 32:47 on an otherwise attractive and inexpensive Berlin Classics 2-CD set (0013412BC or on a single super-budget CD, 0300136BC – see review).
Liszt as he would have sounded in Weimar in the 1850s is an attractive proposition but there are less expensive rival recordings.