Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo (1849) [20:36]+
Totentanz (1849) [19:21]*+
La lugubre gondola No. 2 (1882, orch. John Adams) [12:16]+
La lugubre gondola No. 1 (1882) [4:10]*+
Recueillement (1877) [4:57]*
Années de pélerinage, 3é année: Sursum corda (1867-77) [3:28]*
Es ist genug: Chorale by Bach [1:38]*
*Claudius Tanski (piano)
+Beethoven Orchestra, Bonn/Stefan Blunier
rec. orchestral selections: June 2010; piano solos:. July 2010, Ehem. Ackerhaus der Abtei Marienmünster
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 final peroration.
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 nicely buoyant.
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, and journalist. 

A deep, ringing tone and musical insight.