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Light and Darkness
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Miserere d'après Palestrina from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses S.173 No.8 (1845-52) [3:46]
Ballade 2 S.171 (1853) [16:24]
Deux Légendes S.175 (1860-63) [19:38]
Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude 
from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses S.173 No.3 (1845-52) [20:18]
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Réminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor S.397 (1835-36, arr. Liszt) [6:18]
Giuseppe DONIZETTI (1788-1856)
La marche pour le Sultan Abdul Médjid-Khan S.403 (1847, arr. Liszt) [7:27]
Arvo PÄRT (b.1935)
Für Alina (1976) [2:23]
Martina Filjak (piano)
rec. 2019, Immanuelskirche Wuppertal, Germany
PROFIL PH18074 [77:05]

The back cover offers a quotation from Goethe: “A strong light casts a deep shadow”. Beyond this, it is left to the listener to derive what they can from this in respect of this programme. The first section, all original pieces, draws heavily on Liszt's religious works: two works from his cycle Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, inspired originally by Liszt's response to the poems of Alphonse de Lamartine but ultimately expanding to relate to the wider context of Liszt's religious nature. There are also the two Légendes, depicting scenes from the lives and miracles of St Francis of Assisi and St Francis of Paola. Light and darkness certainly abound in these works but there is also the conflict of Liszt himself; committed artist, flamboyant showman, deeply spiritual but worldly and at times hedonistic. What are we to make of the companion pieces? Certainly both demonstrate the secular side of Liszt and though they have the familial connection of the Donizetti brothers, they seem to be randomly chosen from his vast catalogue of transcriptions and paraphrase. Is this also demonstrating the other facet of Liszt's persona, that of the constant innovator and inveterate champion of other composers' music? Then there is the final piece, Für Alina, Pärt's dedication to a friend's daughter; listed as an encore on the back cover it seems an odd choice for a recorded recital, especially one otherwise devoted to Liszt. I would have considered one of Liszt's late pieces (some of which seem to come from our own century) to be more appropriate.
From the first work, we know we are in Liszt territory. The motet that Liszt heard isn't Palestrina, despite the title, but that is almost incidental; who but Liszt would have written this? The opening bars are a sparsely harmonised treatment of the theme with the text written underneath so that the phrases can be shaped properly. As the work proceeds, so it becomes more a work by Liszt and less the motet that he heard in the Sistine Chapel; his trademark tremolandi and arpeggios decorate it in ever-increasing grandeur but it is the subtle yet distinctive changes of harmony that are as telling. After this, we are on more familiar ground with the Ballades and Légendes and no-one could deny the power and command in these readings, nor the delicacy of the playing, almost hypnotic in the first of the legends; the antiphon of St Francis and his avian congregation is particularly touching in the final pages. Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude is beautifully played though I might have asked for a little more forward momentum in some sections; at over twenty minutes this is a little too considered for my taste.

In the familiar Lucia sextet transcription, there are a couple of issues for me. A tiny messy edit in bar 22 is not really too noticeable but I am more concerned with the B double-flat trills just prior to the final cadenza where there is a jarring false relation with B flats edging into the mix. In the final bars of the grand climax Liszt changes from G flat minor to G flat major before the final sweeping D flat arpeggio. Filjak doesn't observe this change and stays on the G flat minor – possibly she is using a different edition but every other performance of this I have heard makes the change and at this dramatic juncture it doesn't feel right to change what is such a typical Liszt harmonic touch. Other than this, the playing is good though I miss the high operatic passion that someone like Jorge Bolet brings to this music (Marston records 56003-2 Review). Part of this is moving more flexibly through the vocal lines – the 9/8 section with the devilish left-hand trills is a case in point; Filjak is too reserved here for me.

Her performance of the Marche pour le Sultan Abdul Médjid-Khan is much more successful. This work was written by Gaetano's older brother Giuseppe. In 1828, after many years playing in and leading military bands, he became the General Music Director at the court of Sultan Mahmud II in what was then Constantinople. It was at Donizetti's invitation that Liszt visited the court in 1847 and he wrote this arrangement of the March for the Sultan's successor who was himself a pianist. Whether he was gifted enough to play this challenging arrangement is not told here but Filjak certainly has the measure of it and impresses with this virtuoso performance, navigating the tortuous repeated notes and treacherous leaps with aplomb.

After this thunder, we have the rarefied airs of für Alina, with its sparse, scattered notes over a long-sustained bass. I am not convinced that this is an apt companion to the other works on the disc but it is an effective piece in its own right and played with all the right sense of atmosphere. Filjak has this sense of space and texture throughout and she has a keen ear for the declamatory side of this music. This spaciousness makes for slower speeds at times and I would occasionally ask for more momentum towards the end of phrases. There is plenty of poetry and drama here but I don't find it enough to convince me that this is essential Liszt playing.

A curious mix, played well - but not a first choice.

Rob Challinor

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