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Franz LISZT (1811 – 1886)
Complete Piano Music: 46 – Berlioz Transcriptions
Danse des Sylphes de La damnation de Faust, S475/R142 [4:19]
Benvenuto Cellini: Bénédiction et Serment, S396/R141 [7:27]
Ouverture du Roi Lear, S474/R140 [16:22]
Symphonie fantastique: L'idée fixe: Andante amoroso, S395/R135 [5:11]
Symphonie fantastique: IV. Marche au supplice, S470a/R136 (final version)
Introduction L’idee fixe [2:55] and Marche au supplice [5:16]
Harold en Italie: II. Marche des pélerins chantant la prière du soir, S473/2/R139 (2nd version) [9:44]
Les Francs-Juges: Ouverture, S471/R137 [12:56]
Feng Bian (piano)
rec. Morse Recital Hall, Yale School of Music, New Haven, 2015
NAXOS 8.573710 [64:10]

Naxos now reach the 46th volume of their travail through Liszt’s piano works and this volume includes some of the Berlioz transcriptions – obviously, the complete Symphonie fantastique will take up a disc on its own at a later date. I should point out that I’m not really much of a Berlioz fan, however I do find some (but not all) of his music very captivating and interesting. However, Liszt was obviously a great admirer (and friend) of Berlioz as he transcribed a number of pieces for piano.

This disc begins with Liszt’s marvellous recreation of the ‘Danse des Sylphes’ from La damnation de Faust. The original orchestral version of this is subjected to a wide variety of tempos by various conductors as recordings of the piece vary between 2 and 4 minutes! Anyway, there is no need to play the piano transcription at supersonic speed and the incredibly delicate and beautiful playing here comes across marvellously with the speed striking me as just about right.

Next follows a rather powerful account of the ‘Benediction and Serment’ from the opera Benvenuto Cellini – here Liszt takes one specific scene and arranges it. Liszt does a superb job and none of the detail is lost - the same could also be said of the performer here, as nothing is missed and the overall effect is wonderful.

Liszt transcribed three of Berlioz’s overtures (only 2 of which have survived - sadly the transcription of Le Carnaval Romain remains missing) and next follows the one written for King Lear, published as Berlioz’s Op.4 and first performed in 1833. This is an odd work, quite long, rather complicated in structure and with some amazing detail which somehow Liszt manages to replicate at the piano. Again, the performance here is marvellous and makes you realise quite what an accomplished composer Berlioz was and Liszt was for transcribing this so faithfully.

Liszt’s piano transcription of the Symphonie fantastique was used by Schumann for his review published in 1835 and Liszt was obviously very fond of the work as he returned to the main L’idee fixe of the work twice after the initial publication of the transcription of the whole work. The first version was subtitled ‘Andante amoroso after a melody by Berlioz’ and is a ravishing treatment of the “l’idee fixe” with hushed romantic sounding accompaniment. This is very atmospherically played here with everything judged perfectly. The later version also includes the Idee fixe but shortens it somewhat and follows it with a transcription of the ‘March to the Scaffold’ – in a markedly different version to that found in the original transcription from the whole Symphony. The whole history of the 3 connected works is quite detailed and complex! Here the pianist copes very well with the myriad difficulties which Liszt throws at the performer, giving a very powerful and hair-raising performance of this menacing work.

Things are much more reflective and peaceful for the following track – the ‘March of the Pilgrims’ from the Symphony inspired by Byron’s Childe Harold, for viola and orchestra. Liszt arranged the whole work for viola and piano but also transcribed the march for solo piano (which actually exists in 2 versions, this is the later one). Despite the calm atmosphere and the pious nature of the piece, there is still a lot for the pianist to do and Mr. Bian deals with everything extremely confidently and dispatches all of the complexities with minimal fuss. Wonderful stuff!

The final track on the disc is another overture transcription, this time of another early work by Berlioz, the overture to Les Francs-Juges (Op.3) originally intended for an opera which was never completed. This is another fire and brimstone type of piece with some amazing detail in the orchestral version which again is faithfully reproduced by the 10 fingers of Feng Bian in this recording. The opening Allegro section is grim and determined sounding before the music brightens in character at about 3 minutes. Again, there is much detail here, all of which is coped with superbly. There is also some incredibly delicate playing here and there in this work and Mr. Bian is able to make this sound very musical. He also seems to be able to make the piano “sing” when this is required as he has a very tuneful way of playing. The work progresses through several different sections, ending with a commanding statement of a variation on the theme heard at the outset, followed by some quite crazy sounding music to round off this remarkable work.

The disc is quite generously filled; the cover notes are slightly short but contain interesting and useful information about the works and their genesis, both in the original version and the exceedingly effective transcriptions by Liszt. I should also say that having listened to this CD many times; I perhaps ought to have another go at listening to more works by Berlioz as this disc of Liszt’s masterly transcriptions has re-fired my interest in his works. I would also be interested to hear further recordings by this superb pianist and I hope Naxos engage him to record the ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ transcription as he clearly has the technique and temperament to deal with that complex and interesting work.

Jonathan Welsh


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