I don't know what might have drawn John Adams, the composer of Nixon in
China, to the second La lugubre gondola of Liszt,
or impelled him to orchestrate it, but the result is the most
interesting on this album. Conductor Stefan Blunier exploits
the spare textures of Adams's arrangement and Liszt's edgy horizontal
semitone dissonances to evoke the spirit of late Mahler - it's
Liszt as an unexpected precursor of Expressionism. Transparent
three-part string chords at 6:00 let in some light, but the
more disturbed music returns before the piece simply evanesces.
Blunier's leadership in the other two big pieces here is similarly
attentive and musically informed. He guides his players well
through most of Tasso. The string sections of the Bonn
Beethoven Orchestra are a few desks smaller than those of the
high-octane ensembles, but the impression is still of a string-based
sonority supported by winds, rather than the reverse. In the
turbulent passages, the Bonn players' compact sonority conveys
the drama without spilling over into fustian. The broad, lyrical
themes are sensitively phrased by vibrant strings and full-throated
winds; and the more lightly scored pages are beautifully airy.
I also liked the brasses' voicing of the chorale at 8:58 - solemn
and deep, incisive but not aggressive. The mild ambience, however,
slightly blunts the effect of the delicate woodwinds after 11:58;
and Blunier doesn't avoid self-conscious grandiloquence in the
This Totentanz, conjuring Hallowe'en spooks more than
a witches' cauldron, takes time to find its footing. The opening
is heavy and deliberate. Claudius Tanski's first cadenza, gliding
up and down the keyboard with solidly weighted, glistening tone,
picks things up, but then his second one is too rhythmically
square to register as the intended flourish.
The orchestra is game, but at less than tutti strength,
it struggles to make itself heard over the piano after 2:46
and elsewhere, though the brass proclamation at 9:58 cuts through
clearly. It's Tanski who provides the main interest, drawing
on a virtuoso technique and a full range of dynamics and textures.
The driving repeated-note motif at 7:41 is executed well, but
the seemingly effortless way the fugal voices coalesce around
it is even more impressive. The triplet chords at 11:06 are
Tanski plays the shorter pieces with deep, ringing tone and
musical insight. He underlines the Expressionist aspects of
the first La lugubre gondola, just as the orchestra did
in the second. Recueillement is more conventional in
texture, with pingy articulations from the soloist, but the
harmonic idiom is equally angular and unstable. Even Sursum
corda, with its patently Romantic gestures, sounds oddly
"advanced". I assume the Bach Chorale is a Liszt transcription
- the notes don't discuss it - and Tanski varies the density
of the chording while maintaining a solid tone: nicely done.
The sound quality in ordinary stereo is lovely in the lighter
bits, lively in tutti, and slightly rowdy in the final
climax of Tasso. The piano registers handsomely throughout.
Some piano-and-orchestra passages in the Totentanz sound
bunched up and opaque in the midrange, but this may well represent
the actual playing, rather than an engineering flaw.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach,