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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 1-6 (orch. Liszt and Franz Doppler) (1858-1860) [70:24]
Orchester Wiener Akademie/Martin Haselböck
rec. Franz Liszt Konzerthaal, Raiding, 21-23 October 2012
CPO 777797-2 [70:24] 

In a 1983 newspaper interview, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich revealed his passion for an unlikely musical idol - vintage movie star Deanna Durbin. "She helped me in my discovery of myself", he reminisced. "You have no idea of the smelly old movie houses I patronized to see [her]. I tried to create the very best in my music to try and recreate, to approach her purity." [For the full, fascinating Washington Post interview, see here.
 
Readers of a certain age will recall Miss Durbin's attractive soprano voice. Those unfamiliar with the actress - who died earlier this year - can see and hear the qualities that appealed to Rostropovich in YouTube clips of her performing Mozart (see here) and a Hollywood-ised version of Tosti's Goodbye (see here).
 
The first of those two clips comes from the immensely successful 1937 movie 100 men and a girl - in which, with a little help from maestro Leopold Stokowski, our heroine saves a financially imperilled symphony orchestra from closure. Another scene in that particular film showed the musicians winning Stokowski's support by performing Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody no.2; that piece thereafter became something of a calling card for the conductor. Many MusicWeb International readers will, I suspect, own a copy of the RCA Victor Living Stereo's Rhapsodies (09026 61503 2) which includes his classic and hugely compelling recording from the early 1960s. You can listen to that performance here, an experience which has, as you will see, inspired one YouTube commentator to opine - in somewhat unrestrained but mercifully abbreviated terms - that OMFG!!! this is amazing!!
 
Anyone whose view of Liszt's rhapsodies in orchestral form has been formed largely by Stokowski's widely-known interpretation is likely, though, to be rather surprised by this new disc.
 
In the first place, that earlier account’s strings-heavy arrangement has been replaced here by the much more tonally varied, leaner and more transparent original orchestration that had been made in the late 1850s by Liszt's protégé Franz Doppler and subsequently revised by the composer himself.
 
Secondly, the performers on this disc, Orchester Wiener Akademie under their founder Martin Haselböck, use either genuine period instruments or modern copies designed to replicate their characteristics. Thus, to make random choices, the detailed booklet notes list the three bassoons as having been made in 1876/1877 and 1889, while the gut-stringed first violins date from the early 18th century, 1749, 1750, 1770, 1780, the late 18th century, 1870 and 1895. Just a single modern instrument, played by concertmaster Ilia Korol, dates from 1999. We are further informed that "several of the woodwind instruments used on these recordings were played in orchestras conducted by Liszt."
 
The result of this quest for musical authenticity is to hear these immensely enjoyable and addictively foot-tapping pieces entirely afresh. To take just the opening of that familiar second rhapsody as a single example, Stokowski's version begins with an incisive declaration of intent from the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra's powerfully massed strings, whereas the new recording follows Doppler/Liszt by allocating the same brief passage to a solo trumpet supported by strings that serve merely to add dramatic interjections for additional emphasis. The result is the creation of a far lighter and more skittish mood, giving, at that point, much more of an appropriately “gypsy” feel to the score.
 
I have to confess that, in general, I have never really warmed to the historically-aware "authentic" movement as applied to much of the standard orchestral repertoire. That said, the Hungarian Rhapsodies, with their many passages of delicacy and charm as well as Lisztian bluster and bombast, are pieces that actually benefit from being heard without the powerful resonances of the modern symphony orchestra. In fact, as this Orchester Wiener Akademie account demonstrates, much of the Doppler/Liszt arrangement is suggestive of a sort of Budapest cafe sound. It’s positively enhanced by the use of a comparatively modest ensemble.
 
The musicians themselves are clearly having an enjoyable time throughout, playing, as required, with both immense gusto and delightful delicacy, as well as exhibiting innate sympathy for the idiom. You know how it is when you listen to a recording and you can somehow tell that there is no special empathy whatsoever between the players and the conductor - who may well have just jetted in for the occasion on a busy international schedule? Well, this particular recording is the antithesis of that. As the orchestra’s founder and artistic director for almost thirty years, Martin Haselböck presumably hand-picked its personnel and he has certainly formed them into a harmoniously-functioning and well-drilled ensemble. His skills as a conductor are also well demonstrated here in well-chosen tempi, carefully crafted orchestral balance and expert control of the music’s wide dynamic range.
 
From a technical point of view, the new recording is very fine indeed. CPO's engineering team has created a translucent, expertly balanced sound that, coupled with a relatively small unit of players and their eschewal of powerful modern instruments, allows us to hear a great deal of often-obscured detail. I was also pleased to note that the CPO booklet notes - so often, in the past, a source of over-intellectualised mystification rather than useful enlightenment - were, on this occasion, well written, well translated and a positive asset to the release.
 
Although the Orchester Wiener Akademie is currently working its way though recording all of Liszt's orchestral works, this is the first of their widely-acclaimed and award-winning discs that I have had the pleasure of hearing. As you will have gathered by now, I have enjoyed the experience immensely. In fact, to echo our YouTube friend - while avoiding his original implied linguistic excess and somewhat over-emphatic punctuation - I can only say OMG! This is amazing!  

Rob Maynard

See also review by Brian Reinhart

Experience Classicsonline