Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1863) – Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Transcriptions from Operas by Meyerbeer
Illustrations du Prophète, S414/R223 [42:43] (Priere – Hymne triomphale Marche du sacre [16:07]; Les patineurs – Scherzo [14:36]; Chœur pastoral – Appel aux armes [11:58])
Cavatine de Robert le diable, S412a [5:26]
Réminiscences de Robert le diable – Valse infernale, S413/R22 [12:22]
Illustrations de L’Africaine, S415/R224 [22:21] (Prière des matelots [8:33]; Marche indienne [13:46])
Sergio Gallio (piano)
rec. 2014, Nilento Studio, Gothenburg, Sweden
NAXOS 8.573235 [82:57]
I have never seen a Meyerbeer opera but nor had many of
those who first heard these works. In the days before broadcasts and
recordings music-lovers relied on piano versions to get an idea of these
lavish operas which so thrilled audiences at the Paris opera.
Humphrey Searle, whose catalogue of Liszt’s works is, with revisions,
still current, distinguished between Liszt’s operatic transcriptions
and his fantasias. The transcriptions are more of less faithful piano
versions, such as the Rigoletto paraphrase from Verdi, or the
Tristan Liebestod from Wagner. The fantasias on the other hand
are free compositions which use themes from the opera in a new work.
This can be merely a potpourri of good tunes, or sometimes, as in the
case of the Réminiscences de Don Juan, from Mozart’s
Don Giovanni, can be a powerfully integrated composition in
its own right. Successful works in either form depend partly on the
quality of the original themes, partly on that of Liszt’s treatment,
and also on the quality of the playing the pianist brings to them.
The versions of Verdi and Wagner are quite well-known, as are some of
Liszt’s other operatic fantasias and transcriptions. But those
from Meyerbeer are less well known, and one has to say straightaway
that this has to be partly because Meyerbeer’s themes are genuinely
less interesting. Meyerbeer puzzles and intrigues me: he had to have
something to so entrance his contemporary audiences, and for that matter
to be so excoriated by Wagner, but what I have heard of him has seemed
neither wonderful nor dreadful but competently second rate.
We begin with the Illustrations du Prophète, derived from the
opera Le Prophète which is about the Anabaptist rising in Münster
in the sixteenth century. The opening Prière-Hymne triomphale-Marche
du sacre, which is one continuous work, not three, is precisely
the kind of potpourri which must have gone down well at the time but
which seems a bit pointless now. It rambles on endlessly. Les Patineurs
(the skaters) was the ballet for this opera. Liszt takes a basically
simple melody and elaborates it with fantastical decoration turning
it into a splendid display piece. The Choeur pastoral begins
with a single line: originally two shepherd pipes answering each other;
later on the Anabaptists burst in. This is an attractive work which
might have come from the Années de pèlerinage.
The Cavatine from Robert le diable seems a fairly
straight transcription with some piano elaboration, another attractive
piece. However, the Valse infernale is a disappointment. Meyerbeer’s
idea of the devilish is far less demonic than Liszt himself, in the
Mephisto music and elsewhere, and his brilliant treatment cannot wholly
disguise the poverty of the original themes.
Of the two numbers based on Meyerbeer’s last opera, L’Africaine,
the Prière des matelots contrasts sombre passages in the bass
with celestial music in the high treble, rather on the model of the
two Franciscan legends. It is an impressive work. However, the Marche
indienne reverts to the episodic form, and though the individual
sections are attractive, as a whole the piece goes on far too long.
This disc, though well filled, does not contain all Liszt’s versions
of Meyerbeer: there is Reminiscences des Huguenots, of which
there are three versions, also Le Moine. And the finest of
all these Meyerbeer versions is the
fourth and last of the Illustrations du Prophète, the Fantasia
and fugue on ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’. Liszt wrote
this for organ, with a piano four hands version as an alternative. The
tolerably well known solo piano version is by Busoni. Still, without
it, the disc is a bit like Hamlet without the prince.
Sergio Gallo is fluent and musical. He can play the notes, which is
no mean achievement. But he lacks the flamboyance, the daredevil quality,
which is part of the conception of these pieces which makes the more
extravagant passages fall a little flat. The sleeve-note is really helpful,
summarizing the actions of the operas and giving the background of Liszt’s
versions. The recording is clear enough though a little clangorous at
the climaxes. This disc is number 40 in Naxos’ complete piano
music series, which fascinating fact is all that is given on the spine.
Naxos should look at Hyperion, whose Liszt series sensibly tells you
what is on the disc and leaves the volume number to a small place on
Leslie Howard has recorded all these works in his Liszt
series, but they are scattered across half a dozen different issues.
So if you want most of Liszt’s Meyerbeer, to sit next to his versions
of Verdi and Wagner, this is one to get.