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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Historical Hungarian Portraits, S205/R112 (c. 1885) [30:30]
Richard Wagner—Venezia, S201/R82 (1883) [2:54]
At The Grave of Richard Wagner, S202/R85 (1883) [3:00]
The Funeral Gondola No. 2, S200/2/R81/2 (1885) [9:36]
Insomnia Question and Answer Prelude, S203ii/R79 (alternative version) (1883) [2:01]
Hungary's God, S543/R214 (1881) [4:22]
In Memory of Petőfi, S195/R111 (1877) [3:34]
Funeral Procession and Funeral March (1885), S206/R83-84 [7:48]
Mosonyi's Funeral Procession, S194/R110 (1870) [6:14]
Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (Weeping, Lamenting, Worrying, Fearing) Prelude after J.S. Bach, S179/R23 (1854) [6:52]
Jenő Jandó (piano)
rec. 2018 Phoenix Studio Diósd, Hungary
NAXOS 8.574059 [77:58]

Except for the closing Prelude, all the works on this Naxos CD, Volume 54 in the label's ongoing complete Liszt piano music project, can be categorized as late works. As Liszt mavens are aware, the composer's late piano compositions represent an arguably radical departure from those of his early and middle periods: the dazzling virtuosity and passionate Romanticism are largely bleached out of his style, replaced now with comparatively simpler writing, barren textures and often a dark, contemplative demeanor. Yet, in a paradoxical twist, while the music is simpler it is also more complex: melodic lines are generally less linear, more jagged and wide ranging, and harmonies often experimental and daring. Further, much of Liszt's late work can be described as stark, eerie, bleak and even downright morbid. How many of these works' titles contain the word “funeral” in one form or another? Others refer to “grave” or are written “in memory of” and the like. The obsession with death and eternal life are nearly ever-present from the erstwhile womanizer and now devout cleric, who had taken minor orders in the Roman Catholic Church. It was quite a turnabout in both aspects of Liszt's life.

Yet, some of these changes were not so sudden: there were often religious elements in Liszt's early and especially middle-period works, as well as a tendency to portray the diametrical forces of the demonic and angelic. Ironically, in works where the two opposing elements are present, like the Faust Symphony, Liszt seemed more effective in his depiction of the demonic. The stylistic simplification of his piano writing, however, was something rather new. True, not all his late piano works are of this type: The Years of Pilgrimage—Third Year, for example, features fuller textures and music of challenge to the performer. Still, even this collection of seven pieces is technically less demanding than many works from earlier periods. Naxos presents an interesting assemblage of compositions here that while generally of modest difficulty are nevertheless quite challenging interpretively.

The pianist Jenő Jandó is well known to keyboard enthusiasts from his traversals of the complete concertos and sonatas of Mozart, all the sonatas of Haydn and Beethoven and complete works of Bartok. He is appearing here in his sixth entry in this massive Liszt undertaking, for which Naxos is using a number of pianists, unlike Hyperion whose Liszt project of 99 CDs featured one pianist in the superhuman person of Leslie Howard.

The Historical Hungarian Portraits, the lead-off item on the disc, is a set of seven pieces, each of which depicts a dead heroic or important figure in the history or culture of Hungary. Several of these men died by violence or suicide and thus the music is reflective at the very least, if not dark and gloomy. Yet there is an unmistakable Hungarian flavor and occasionally an almost upbeat character in some of the music. The first portrait, Stephan Széchenyi, exhibits a Hungarian folkish manner, at times proud and martial in sound, but also a bit menacing. The second, Joseph Eötvös, exudes a warmer almost romantic character once it gets past the conflicted opening. The third, Michael Vörösmarty, is contemplative and darker, while the ensuing Ladislaus Teleki is perhaps the most sinister sounding piece in the collection: creepy, threatening, even demonic, it builds eerily from the very beginning toward a grand climax. The same thematic material is used in the Funeral Prelude and Funeral March, also on this disc (track 14). Both are profound, masterly pieces.

In contrast Franz Deák is brighter (albeit not happy) and more colorful in its Hungarian character, while Alexander Petőfi is mostly ponderous with very thin textures (lots of single note playing) and paced quite slowly. Another and earlier version of this piece appears later on this disc—In Memory of Petőfi, mentioned below. The final piece, Michael Mosonyi, has dark and threatening music interleaved with lyrical and gentle music. It is a profound and substantive piece, its few lyrical sections even divulging hints of Liszt's warmer, romantic side. Clearly, Liszt felt closer to Mosonyi than the other historical figures, producing maybe the finest work in this collection here. Another version of this music comes later on this disc in Mosonyi's Funeral Procession, discussed below.

Jandó delivers all these Portraits in convincing style, though I find that in some of the more contemplative music here and elsewhere on this disc, his dynamics at times tend to be a little on the strong side. Still, his accounts are quite fine and I would choose him over the generally faster Leslie Howard in this set. The two Wagner pieces are both dark and contemplative, again with very barren writing and slow tempos. The Funeral Gondola II is also very dark, Liszt depicting a scene in Venice of a gondola bearing a coffin headed to the island cemetery of San Michele. While the feeling of loss is strong here, there is more of a sense that some ineluctable, sad fate awaits us all. Yet, Liszt offers a glimmer of hope amid the gloom and despair, but loneliness and doom, it seems, close the piece most effectively. Jandó interprets all three of these grim works most impressively, turning in perhaps his finest performances here.

Insomnia Question and Answer (probably better known as Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort), is given in its second version, which has a few alternative passages to the First, though both are still around two minutes duration each. The piece exhibits an anxious manner at the outset and then turns reflective. Hungary's God begins in a stern and solemn way and then rallies its energies to serve patriotic purposes. In Memory of Petőfi is the earlier but shorter version of No.6 of the Historical Hungarian Portraits. There follows the Funeral Prelude and Funeral March, which is an expansion upon the material in No.4 from the Hungarian Portraits. Not only is the march preceded by a brief prelude but the march tread evolves more slowly and ominously, both additions deftly heightening the eerie atmosphere. In Mosonyi's Funeral Procession, we hear the first version of the Seventh Portrait. (Liszt, the inveterate recycler, also made a two-piano version of this music.) In all these works Jandó once again turns in very convincing performances. I especially like his impressive account of the Funeral Prelude and Funeral March.

The final piece, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, as mentioned earlier, is the only item here that is not a late work. Yet, its character certainly fits in with the darker manner of most of its disc mates. Based on a theme in the JS Bach cantata of the same title, Liszt, as he had done so often throughout his output, takes the material and its stylistic characteristics and makes them sound more like his music and style than that of the source composer. Naxos attributes the year of composition to 1859 though Leslie Howard has it as 1854. Howard must be correct as it appears the work was published in 1856. In any event, Jandó delivers a splendid performance of the piece.

The sound reproduction on this disc is excellent. As for competitors, the most conspicuous is Howard on Hyperion, of course, and while he has all these pieces recorded, they are assembled on discs with different couplings. In general, I would prefer Jandó owing to Howard's tendency at times to adopt too brisk a tempo. There are others who have recorded some of these works of course—Reinbert de Leeuw/Philips; Jeffrey Swann/Music & Arts—both of whom include just a smattering of these and with different couplings as well. Many of Liszt's compositions on this new CD are very profound and all are masterly. Some are first rate masterpieces, even though their appeal may be limited because of their dark nature. In the end, I must give this Naxos disc a very high recommendation because of Liszt's great music, Jandó's excellent performances and the very generous timing. Lisztians and piano connoisseurs take note!

Robert Cummings

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