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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Deuxième valse oubliée S 215/2 [6:48]
Gretchen S 513 transcribed composer [19:03]
from the Années de Pèlerinage, Deuxième Année: Italie S 161:
Sposalizio [7:19]
Il penseroso [4:12]
Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa [3:12]
Sonetto 104 del Petrarca [6:49]
Nuages gris S 199 [2:27]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Elegie WWV 93 [1:23]
Prelude to Tristan und Isolde WWV 90 (transcr. Zoltán Kocsis) [8:12]
La lugubre gondola I, S 200/1 [4:344]
Richard WAGNER
Isoldens Liebestod aus Tristan und Isolde S 447 transcribed Liszt [6:50]
Bagatelle sans tonalité S 216a [2:59]
Imogen Cooper (piano)
rec. July 2016, Snape Maltings Hall, Suffolk
CHANDOS CHAN10938 [74:36]

I had previously associated Imogen Cooper with fine and sensitive performances of Mozart and Schubert and so I was both surprised and pleased to find her issuing a disc of Liszt, thinking he must be too showy for her fastidious sensibility. True, she eschews the more barnstorming aspect of Liszt but still his whole outlook is very different from those composers she had played so well.

Looking at the title of this disc, you might expect it to be a collection of Liszt’s fantasias and transcriptions of Wagner operas. We have had several such discs but this is not one of them. In fact it is a rather curious collection; Imogen Cooper explains that her starting point was the piano transcription of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde by the late Zoltán Kocsis, the Hungarian pianist and composer best known for his Bartόk recordings. Kocsis died in 2016 and she has dedicated this recording to his memory. She considers this transcription not inferior to Liszt’s celebrated one of the Liebestod, which is also on this disc. The rest of the programme consists of Liszt works, only one of which has a Wagnerian connection (La lugubre gondola I), and of one tiny piano work by Wagner himself.

I also find the sequence chosen rather strange. I would have thought the recital would have worked better with the two big Wagner transcriptions as bookends, and the chosen sequence seems rather miscellaneous. Still, if you want to play the disc through you can always programme as you wish. I shall discuss the performances in the order given.

We begin with Liszt and with the second of the Valses oubliées. This is one of Liszt’s late works, charming and wistful and delicately done by Cooper, apart from one surprising weakness: she does not sufficiently differentiate the paired semiquavers of the main theme from the paired quavers which follow, except towards the end of the performance; Leslie Howard, in his complete set of Liszt’s waltzes (Hyperion CDA66201) gets this right. Nevertheless, Cooper plays with beguiling subtlety, more so than Howard .

This is followed by Liszt’s own transcription of the Gretchen movement from the Faust symphony. Although I love the Faust symphony, I am capable of being bored by this movement, which runs to nearly twenty minutes. The piano version inevitably loses all the orchestral colour, such as the flutes and clarinets at the beginning and the later delicate accompaniment by three flutes to the theme on a few cellos. Nevertheless, Cooper held my interest, partly by moving the piece on, though without hurrying, and partly by her tender and expressive playing.

We then have four pieces from the second book of the Années de pèlerinage. Sposalizio begins quietly and gently but rises to a thunderous climax with rushing octaves, eventually in both hands and marked tutta forza. Cooper rises to the challenge, without ever going through her tone or thumping. Il Penseroso is dark and chromatic, and I noted her skilful pedalling which preserves the harmonic clashes without muddying the sound. The Canzonetta del Savator Rosa is a light-hearted rehandling of an old tune, not without some tricky challenges, which she meets with ease. The Sonetto 104 del Petrarca is the most elaborate of the three similar works in the set. Originally written as a song, in its piano version it has the most elaborate decoration and ornament with several cadenza-like passages. It is curiously like, while being quite different from, Chopin. Cooper is in her element here and gives a splendidly flamboyant and successful performance. (Incidentally, the sonnet is now numbered 134 in Petrarch’s works; the text and a translation can be found here.)

After this we have Nuages gris, another of Liszt’s late pieces, with bare simple writing but strange harmonies. All display has been abandoned and Cooper offers a suitably bleak performance.

Then we have the tiny Elegie by Wagner. I must admit I had not heard of it before. It is short (thirteen bars) but anguished. It dates from 1858 but was revised in 1881, and the later date seems the operative one, as the idiom is that of Parsifal. It forms a suitable prelude to the Tristan Prelude proper. Kocsis’s version of this begins simply enough, as a straight transcription of the orchestral score, but as Wagner builds towards a climax he manages to include an amazing amount of the score, partly by writing chords, which are, strictly speaking, unperformable and which Cooper, like anyone else, has to break. I happen to think that the climax is not quite right, but this must be laid at the door of Kocsis, not Cooper, and Kocsis does the same thing on his own recording. (I also regret that Kocsis chose to end his version exactly as the Prelude ends in the opera, rather than transcribing Wagner’s beautiful concert ending) Cooper really enjoys this work and revels in the opportunities for virtuosity it offers.

It is followed by another bleak late work, the first of the two pieces Liszt wrote in Venice after seeing funeral gondolas, and which he titled La lugubre gondola. He had already had a premonition of Wagner’s death, which indeed happened shortly afterwards.

The transcription of the Liebestod from Tristan is the one actual Liszt transcription of Wagner on the disc, and it is probably his most celebrated. This is an amazingly ingenious piece of work, and I keep admiring the resourcefulness with which Liszt compensates for the piano’s inability to sustain notes at the same level and still less to increase volume on them. In Cooper’s performance I particularly admired the way she keeps the tension rising in the celebrated sequence of twenty seven unresolved discords which lead to the final climax. It is a splendid performance.

We end with a firework: the Bagatelle sans tonalité, which is in Liszt’s late style but fast and demonic instead of slow and bleak; indeed he subtitled it ‘Fourth Mephisto Waltz’, but that title is now reserved for a different work entirely. After hearing this I would like to hear Cooper in some of Liszt’s other demonic music, perhaps all four of the actual Mephisto waltzes.

The recording is full without being too resonant, in the sympathetic setting of the Concert Hall at Snape Maltings in Suffolk. CDr Conor Farrington provides a well-informed sleevenote, though he discusses the works in their chronological order and not in the order on the disc. Cooper herself also provides a note.

There is no direct comparison for this programme. I should mention that Kocsis himself recorded a disc of Wagner transcriptions, including not only his version of the Tristan Prelude but also that to Meistersinger, now on Australian Eloquence ELQ4807401.

I have only the one reservation about Imogen Cooper’s playing, noted above, and can recommend this disc.

Stephen Barber



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