Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Les Préludes, Symphonic Poem after Lamartine (1848) [16:47]
Two Episodes after Lenau’s Faust: (before 1861): Procession by Night (otherwise known as The Night Ride) [15:19]; Dance at the Village Inn (Mephisto Waltz No. 1) [12:10]
Two Legends (1863): St Francis of Assisi’s sermon to the birds [12:17]; St Francis of Paola walking on water [8:42]
Rotterdam Philharmonisch Orkest/James Conlon
rec. Doelen, Rotterdam, November and December 1983
WARNER APEX 2564 66586-1 [65:28]

Les Préludes, probably Franz Liszt’s best-known and most popular symphonic poem has often been recorded. The score has a preface beginning – “What else is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown Hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death? — Love is the glowing dawn of all existence; but what is the fate where the first delights of happiness are not interrupted by some storm ...” Lovers of Late Romanticism will revel in this unashamedly OTT indulgence – full of hedonistic sentimentality and thrills and what a towering climax. This Conlon reading is grand and imposing but rather underwhelming in its slower and quieter stretches. That said, the Rotterdam Orchestra’s playing, especially in its string section is quite luscious. For really edge-of-the-seat excitement, Karajan is hard to beat and the bargain Naxos reading of the Katowice Radio Orchestra impresses mightily too.

The atmospheric Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust was inspired by the Austrian poet Lenau’s version of the Faust legend. Lenau was the pseudonym of Nikolaus Franz Niembsch a rather melancholy romantic. It is probably best to consider the two pieces in the chronological order of the story. In Lenau’s version Faust and Mephistopheles interrupt a wedding feast at an inn. Faust dances with the bride, seduces her and carries her off into the woods to spend her wedding night in wild debauchery. At the end, they are damned for eternity for their immorality. Above the ending, Liszt quotes Lenau’s last line – “and they drowned in an ocean of their lust”. Dance at the Village Inn (Mephisto Waltz No. 1) is much the better known of the two episodes. It has been recorded a number of times notably by Leopold Stokowski on a BBC mono issue - BBCL 4059-2 and by Fritz Reiner with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on RCA. Conlon’s version is crisp and thrilling and manically witty enough but it just falls short of Reiner’s tense and sexy reading. The Procession by Night is the much less well-known piece of the two. It is a beautiful nocturnal pastoral evocation with extraordinarily beautiful writing for strings and woodwinds. One can imagine the flight to the woods by the couple to the sounds of nature. It is intense and passionate too with a hint of supernatural menace and church bells. A note of piety serves as a contrast and perhaps as a warning. Conlon is on fine form here.

The most interesting work in this programme is Liszt’s Two Legends – worth acquiring this disc for them alone. They are among his less familiar works for orchestra. Some mystery continues to surround them. Those who know Liszt’s piano music will recognize them as orchestral versions of Liszt’s Two Legends for piano. At around the age of 50, Liszt suffered personal tragedy: two of his children died suddenly - Daniel at 20 and Blandine aged 27. He resigned his music director post at Weimar and found consolation in the Catholic Church. In 1861 he moved to Rome and in 1863 entered the Oratory of the Madonna del Rosario at Monte Mario. He took minor orders in the Church; he was known as Abbé Liszt. Much of Liszt’s music from this time onwards was based on religious themes. Not so well-known these days, these works include: oratorios and settings of the mass, requiem, psalms, and many other religious texts. Liszt composed these two pieces in the year he entered the Oratory. The Two Legends: St. Francis of Assisi: Sermon to the Birds and St. Francis of Paola Walking on the Waves, were inspired by events in the life of St. Francis of Assisi: The music exists in two versions - one for orchestra, the other for piano. It is not certain which came first.

The composer claimed that the first Legend, St Francis of Assisi’s sermon to the birds was inspired by a passage from the Little Flowers of St. Francis: “He lifted up his eyes and saw the trees which stood by the wayside filled with a countless multitude of birds; at which he marvelled, and said to his companions: ‘Wait a little for me in the road, and I will go and preach to my little brothers the birds.’ And he went into the field, and began to preach to the birds that were on the ground; and forthwith those which were in the trees came around him, and not one moved during the whole sermon; nor would they fly away until the Saint had given them his blessing.” Liszt uses a small orchestra comprising strings, woodwind and harp to create an impression of this story; the instruments in high register full of trills, runs and grace notes suggesting the trilling and fluttering of the little birds. Conversely the ‘Sermon’ episode uses a deeper register to indicate the solemnity of St Francis’s message. A climax is reached in passionate piety.

The second legend, St Francis of Paola walking on water, is a briefer but more dramatic tone poem requiring quite a large brass section. It was inspired by the story of the Saint walking over the sea to cross the Straits of Messina by using his cape and rod to emulate a sailing boat. The piece begins quietly with a mounting noble theme for the Saint in octaves before the music swells even further to suggest the swirling and pitching and tossing of the waves. A huge chordal climax thunders out the opening theme.

The serene and gentle St Francis of Assisi’s sermon to the birds music, so evocative of the story is given an exquisite beatific reading by Conlon and he invests great dignity and fervour in his reading of St Francis of Paola walking on water.

The standard documentation for this Apex reissue is dismal. It is a mere four-page leaflet with just the works’ titles and no notes whatsoever.

Good performances but in the case of Les Préludes there is major competition around – even at budget prices. However this CD is worth investigating for the gem that is the Two Legends

Ian Lace

Good performances but there is major competition around – even at budget prices.