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Liszt harmonies PTC5186296
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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (1853 version)
Saskia Giorgini (piano)
rec. April 2021, Raiding, Austria
PENTATONE PTC5186296 [84:49]

Some of Liszt’s ten Harmonies poétiques et religieuses are quite popular – Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, Funérailles and perhaps Pensée des morts – but recordings of the whole set are not entirely common. Luckily, the Italian-Dutch pianist Saskia Giorgini, the winner of the 2016 Salzburg International Mozart Competition, has decided to commit her thoughts on the cycle to disc. Here she plays a Bösendorfer, and the disc was recorded in Liszt’s birthplace of Raiding which, due to historical boundary changes, is now in Austria rather than Hungary.

The first piece in the cycle, Invocation, set firmly in E major, starts off with a blaze of colour and power. I like it how the pianist controls the sheer volume and exuberance of the music. This is very much a virtuoso piece, full of verve and tricky passagework for the pianist to negotiate. (I played it in concert about 30 years ago, so can vouch for this personally.) Saskia Giorgini judges it perfectly without vacuous showing off.

Ave Maria, much more introspective, is a transcription of an earlier choral work of the same title. There is a clear contrast with the preceding work. This pious little piece is beautifully controlled and voiced here. The piano brings out the melody very well as it weaves its way between the hands, notably at 3:40 when the plaintive “Ave Maria” setting of the words emerges most effectively from the bass. The piece ends very peacefully, sort of fading into the distance.

There follows what some have called the jewel of the set, Liszt’s masterpiece Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, set in his favourite religious key of F sharp major. At just over seventeen-and-a-half minutes, the performance is of average length. (Alfred Cortot’s edition suggests it should take eleven-and-a-half minutes, which is insane. I think the piece sounds better played more slowly; at that concert, I took around 19-20 minutes.) The work splits neatly into three sections; the final section is derived from the opening part. Many of the ideas for the piece can be found in the 1847 version of the set, most recently excellently recorded on Naxos (see reviews here and here). In this version, we have Liszt’s final thoughts on the piece.

The opening section here is wonderful, weaving fantastic long lines. The pianist gives us some very beautiful playing and brilliant control, especially towards the end of the section. The following middle part is almost like a little minuet; a cheerful little utterance segues into a Preludio which evolves into the final longer section. The pacing is excellent, and the transition from the happier minuet to the Preludio is perfectly judged. I particularly like it how at 7:32 the pianist makes the bass stand out very clearly, underpinning the structure of the next phrase. The return of the opening dotted rhythm is finely done, and the concluding part, as the music changes back into F sharp, is exquisite. The Preludio is gorgeous. Liszt’s gift for wonderful melody is reflected here in a thoughtful, meditative atmosphere, and the playing is exactly as it should be. This gradually grows in strength and ultimately leads to a reprise of the opening music, modified and extended. Here the atmosphere is increasingly ecstatic; there is a palpable sense of fervour and some fabulous phrasing and pedalling. The gently rippling accompaniment is spot on. As the piece draws to a close, the powerful F sharp major music stops and a ghostly, reflective reminiscence of the minuet appears, forming a fitting conclusion to this magnificent piece. The whole performance is spellbinding.

The fairly well known Pensée des morts evolved from Liszt’s 1834 piece, confusingly also entitled Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, combined with the main theme from his almost complete 1835 work for piano and orchestra De Profundis. (The latter was recently recorded for Naxos with the superbly talented Goran Filipec as soloist.) The mood at the opening of Pensée is very different from the serenity of Bénédiction. It is creepy and unsettling, written with no key signature or time signature. The weird opening soon settles into something a little calmer. The music evolves disjointedly, so it would be easy to end up with a series of unconnected vignettes, but here it all seems to flow naturally from one episode to the next. The completely over-the-top powerful writing from 3:10, where Liszt racks up the tension, is very well judged; the main theme blasts out, surrounded by masses of repeated notes. This really is great stuff, and the playing is altogether characterful and fiery. The De Profundis theme emerges strongly from the bass. Surprisingly, the pianist seems to holds back the power slightly, but that works very well because the pent-up tension somehow dissipates in the short section that links to the remainder of the work. The theme is now in a different key and much modified to a really rather beautiful tune. After all the histrionics, the work ends with a combination of the De Profundis theme and the dotted rhythm from the opening. The last three chords, very, very quiet, are ideally played.

The short Pater noster contains some very hymn-like writing and some rather clever key changes. There is a definite religious feeling to the music, and Saskia Giorgini conveys this very well.

I have always liked the next piece, Hymne de l’enfant à son réveil, a transcription of a choral work of the same title. It is a simple, direct setting of a lovely melody, set in A flat major. It bustles along nicely, with lots of harmonies in sixths. The performance, slightly slower than some, sounds just right. The control of the accompaniment to the main theme is splendid, and there is masterful playing in the treble around a minute in. The core of this little piece is a quiet central section at about four minutes. The pianist shows that she is perfectly in tune with this music. She does not overcook the statement of the main theme that follows it (which is easy to do), so the balance of the piece is not upset. This is a great performance of a lovely little work.

Funérailles, probably best-known in the cycle, was much recorded across the years. The sense of terror is palpable as the opening funeral bells toll deep in the bass of the piano. The tempo of this opening section is quite swift but the remainder of the work is slightly slower than I am used to. This gives the music time to breathe and makes for a marvellous performance. The opening marching part of the music soon collapses into a very despondent tune in F minor, played here with great feeling but with an underlying sense of menace. The use of pedal is impeccable, and the tune hangs over the accompaniment like gloomy clouds. Gradually the mood lightens to a lagrimoso section, utterly beautifully played and fittingly melancholy. The next page and a half are the tune amplified in octaves and cunningly setting up the music for the famous “galloping hooves” section, again in F minor. The playing is very clear, helped by the excellent recorded sound, judicious use of pedal and incredibly fleet fingers! This grows to a massive outburst which stops abruptly and is followed by a short restatement of the very miserable tune, here amplified to something far more grief-stricken and violent. Liszt then cleverly brings back a reminiscence of the lagrimoso, changed in key and mood so that it is somehow even more unhappy. To end the work, the gallop returns in F minor to provide a powerful, scary conclusion. This is a magnificent performance of an often-recorded work, full of drama and passion.

Liszt subtitled the next piece, Miserere d’après Palestrina, confusingly – it is nothing to with the Renaissance master – but actually it is a Palestrina-like little work. The prayer-like theme has initially no ornament but is repeated with increasing religious fervour and ultimately surrounded by swirling arpeggios, spanning the whole keyboard. Of special note are the tremolandos at about one minute, light and very clear and echoing nicely while the main theme is played in the bass. This is an excellent performance of tricky music, loud but never thunderous, and that somehow makes it more effective.

I feel that Andante lagrimoso is a gem. It is a shame that it is so much less frequently played than, say, Bénédiction. Cleverly written, it makes some significant demands on the pianist, not that this soloist had any trouble. The sadness of the opening theme is apparent in the playing, the lagrimoso (tearful) character is apparent in this performance. The central section is much thornier and, if you look at the score, much more complicated – again, no problem here. This lachrymose atmosphere finally dispels. At about 5:30, a much happier tune emerges, only to be defeated by the sadness at end the piece.

Liszt ends the cycle with a joyful outburst of love in Cantique d’amour. (I played it, too, years ago.) The opening improvisatory bars lead to a lovely singing tune in E major, which evolves through a series of key changes and harmonic changes, almost like a set of variations, each more complex than the preceding one. The control here is lovely; the middle part from 2:22 is magnificently played. This is hard to bring off as the tune has to be picked out among an awful lot of notes. This cleverly transmogrifies into the opening theme, again in a different key, which is varied several more times, becoming increasingly ardent as the work draws towards its close. The last 30 seconds are like a cry of joy. This performance makes them overwhelmingly powerful and joyful.

This is a brilliant recording. Saskia Giorgini is clearly a supremely talented pianist who thinks very deeply about the music she plays here. The recording is clear and bright, and the Bösendorfer piano is well suited to this repertoire. The playing is restrained and perfectly phrased. This is superb Liszt playing: no grandstanding or showing off. The interesting booklet notes give insight into the complicated evolution of this cycle. The disc is most generously filled – nearly 85 minutes.

I look forward to hearing more from this artist. She is a deeply musical pianist blessed with a phenomenal technique.

Jonathan Welsh

Invocation [7:16)
Ave Maria [6:37]
Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude [17:41]
Pensée des morts [13:16]
Pater noster [2:23]
Hymne de l’enfant à son réveil [6:48]
Funérailles (October 1849) [12:22]
Miserere, d’après Palestrina [3:32]
Andante lagrimoso [7:34]
Cantique d’amour [7:14] x

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