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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe S107 (1881) [16:18]
Trois Odes funèbres S112 (1860-66) [34:30]
Zwei Episoden aus Lenaus Faust S110 (1861) [28:06]
Glasgow Singers (Odes funèbres I)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov
rec. June 2010, City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
HYPERION CDA67856 [78:54]

In 2011 Hyperion issued this fine CD of under-performed and under-recorded orchestral works by Liszt. The composer’s piano music and works for piano and orchestra have long been in the limelight; the orchestral music less so. Liszt’s piano music is so much in the foreground that his orchestral works have taken third or fourth rank. This disc offers one work which is pretty much unknown flanked by two that have only found a lower-shelf niche. Those two feature among fairly well rooted collections of the tone poems, some complete and some not (e.g. Decca, Solti; EMI, Masur; Philips, Haitink; Brilliant, Arpad Joo). This disc is filled to very close to 80 minutes.

Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (‘From the cradle to the grave’) - a short work - was written ‘after’ a drawing by the Hungarian Mihály Zichy (1827–1906). This tone poem presents three stages of existence: birth; life’s struggle; death. Both Delius and Bax were drawn to comparable great life themes and wrote works with titles to match or to come close. Hyperion and Ilan Volkov give us this nicely boundaried work in three ‘chapters’; one track for each chapter. The cradle is, as expected, a silkily gentle paragraph and very different from the abrasive kinetics that present the throes of life and its enthusing conflicts. It is surely significant that the life segment is the shortest of the three chapters and the most belligerent. The longest movement (7:42) is the last: “To the grave, cradle of the life to come”. Here Liszt presents a sometimes searing and sometimes coolly lyrical image commensurate with the subject.

The Trois Odes Funèbres are each separately tracked. But Leslie Howard’s notes for this disc remark that “it is quite clear from the original manuscripts that Liszt intended these works to be performed as a cycle [but] … have rarely been performed as he wished”. This disc puts right that omission. A choir is featured in the first Ode and here the Glasgow Singers sing with raw passion and fierce hearts; a touch of Verdi here, or at least music that might have affected Verdi. The episodes within the First Ode are satisfyingly articulated and connected and it ends in seeming contemplation of planetary eternity. The second Ode is ‘The Night’, which takes the form of a cortege laden with funereal pomp and dignified grief. The third carries a subtitle: ‘Epilogue to the Symphonic Poem: Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo’. The music here has a silvery surface and the whole piece (tr. 6) suggests a noble struggle and dignified surrender in the face of fate. Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo itself appears in the collections of Liszt’s tone poems.

We know that the story of Faust was an active backdrop to Liszt’s life. His two fully worked through and substantial multi-movement symphonies are the Dante and Faust works. We know he is not alone in this respect: Berlioz wrote The Damnation of Faust and dedicated it to Liszt while Liszt’s Faust Symphony carried a reciprocal dedication to Berlioz. Nikolaus Lenau’s take on the Faust legend cast a spell over Liszt with the diptych result heard here: Zwei Episoden aus Lenaus Faust. The whole work runs to 28 minutes. The first episode is Der nächtliche Zug and the second Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke—Erster Mephisto-Walzer. Liszt dedicated the Episodes to Carl Tausig (1841–1871). Der nächtliche Zug is a tone poem in itself and clearly an earnest essay in the eternal verities. There’s none of the drenched technicolor of Hunnenschlacht, Festklänge, Hungaria or Les Préludes. Contrast comes in the form of Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke which is purposeful, striking attitudes and suggesting that the village pub dance has been appropriated by the Devil. For a while it has an ungovernable life of its own. A healing diminuendo, including some dramatic arpeggiation from the harp, brings things to a close after one last forte spasm.

This disc was issued ten or so years ago. Why review it now? There’s no intrinsic musical virtue in novelty. The site’s coverage extends back to the mid/late 1990s and all the reviews over that period are accessible. Discs are deleted or otherwise fall out of currency all the time. Their attractions and failures are not a whit diminished, diluted or abbreviated by “Time’s wingèd chariot”. They should find a place in these ‘pages’ especially as in this case, the site did not cover this Hyperion disc on first appearance. For much the same reason I was pleased to see John Quinn covering Bryden Thomson’s Vaughan Williams’ symphonies and concertos. Reissues and even licensing out to other firms remain a possibility and secondhand copies can be had, often without a great struggle. In this case Hyperion selected this disc to give the release a fresh chance.

I was in touch with Simon Perry who explained that coronavirus had forced cancellation of about 70% of the label’s recording schedule in 2020. The intended recordings would have been issued in 2021. This predicament has left Hyperion with a dearth of discs to release. In December 2020 they chose twenty albums from their back catalogue “to refresh the minds of consumers of the richness and diversity” on which they can draw. This principle has now been extended to the monthly release schedule so we will see more CDs re-emerging from the Hyperion back catalogue.

Hyperion has been a mainstay of the Liszt experience including the complete (always a dangerous assertion) piano music (Leslie Howard) on 99 CDs. Hyperion’s delectable ambition having been fulfilled, they set about a series with Liszt’s Complete Songs in seven volumes. Delve further and you will find the Missa Choralis and Via Crucis with the Corydon Singers/Matthew Best on CDA67199 together with a scatter of piano discs from Stephen Hough, Steven Osborne (CDA67445), Cédric Tiberghien (review) and Nikolai Demidenko. There are also the Violin and Piano works from Chris Nicholls and Jonathan Ayerst on CDA66743. The days of vinyl campaigns on behalf of Liszt by Gunnar Johansen (a prodigious quantity of home recordings on LP and cassette) and yes, by Revolution Records (Sergio Fiorentino, Philip Challis, Gail Buckingham) now seem quaint if still intriguing and one day perhaps they will be worthy of recovery in much the same way that we now treasure Mahler and Bruckner as resurrected by F Charles Adler.

The instructive and widely spanned notes for the present disc are indeed by Leslie Howard.

There we have it. Music that is for the most part deadly serious but studded with beauty of writing and playing. All very commensurate with the grand subject-matter and superbly performed and recorded.

Rob Barnett

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