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Liszt v1 PFCD167168
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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Volume 1: Death and Transfiguration
Kenneth Hamilton (piano)
rec. 2020/21, Cardiff University School of Music
PRIMA FACIE PFCD167/168 [76:57 + 75:03]

The advertising blurb insists that “This is a Liszt recording with a difference: repertoire reflecting love, death and transfiguration, memory and nostalgia.”  This implies a virtual cross-section of the human condition, which leaves me wondering what element has been omitted.

It states that Kenneth Hamilton has “sought out and taken seriously Liszt’s often ignored recommendations on their interpretation, passed down from the many reminiscences and recordings of students who worked closely with the composer. He has, in effect, tried to think like a Liszt pupil, to immerse himself in a performance tradition that goes beyond the printed text, and to respect Liszt’s long legacy of teaching his own music.” 

I will consider the major items on this 2-CD set as well as several numbers that caught my ear.

The magnum opus here is the Sonata in B minor, S.178 (1852-53), dedicated to Robert Schumann. There are some 200 recordings currently available on disc or download; it is therefore imperative to understand that Kenneth Hamilton is competing here with all the ‘greats,’ including Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim, Emil Gilels, Van Cliburn and Vladimir Horowitz.

Here, Liszt moves the goalposts of sonata form. This work is in a single movement, with four sections that are all played without a break. Liszt created his piano masterpiece using one principal theme, with several subsidiary ones. These are subject to constant melodic and rhythmical transformations as the music progresses. The idea is to make the entire sonata appear as an “artistic unity.” From a romantic era notion, the work can be argued to depict the struggle of an artist who pits his or her noble aspirations against “relentless destiny.” After much effort, the music ends in peaceful melancholy. Every human emotion can be found in these pages and this is the problem with which the pianist must contend. These sentiments must be realised with a deep understanding of how Liszt transforms his themes and creates a satisfying unity. The technical demands range from “tumultuous octaves at breakneck speed, a powerful exposition of melodies, accurate and detailed part-playing in the fugato sections.”

Kenneth Hamilton has given an interpretation which fully encompasses Liszt’s vision. Finally, he adopts a strikingly moving revised reading of the Sonata’s final page.

I have never quite fully bought into to Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (S.173). I accept that these ten works were written at a time of emotional stress: the death of his father, his struggle to make a living to support his mother and himself, his unrequited first love, and his youthful desire to enter the Catholic Church. The elegiac Funérailles, lasting twelve minutes, is given a dramatic performance here. Commemorating the loss of three friends killed during rioting in Hungary during 1849, this is a “heroic lament” exploiting several “takes” on March form, yet, this is transfigured by strong “harmonic clashes, stark fanfares and an abrupt ending.” Here and there, moments of beauty emerge to cast a beam of light on the deep despair of Liszt’s loss. The second, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, has a title that Messiaen might have dreamt up. I accept that this is a truly beautiful work. If at times despondent, this music is full of nobility and acquiescence of the soul. Contrasting moments of hymn like beauty compete with a massive climax full of arpeggios. It is one of the loveliest of Liszt’s piano pieces and deserves to be heard more often. Pensée des Morts is also an elegy, composed in memory of his late father, the mother of his first love, and after the trauma of illness which left Liszt as good a dead. An obituary notice was even prepared. I find it too depressing and far too long. Yet, other commentators find it the “core of the set.” Equally gloomy is the final movement that Hamilton has chosen, Ave Maria.

The Csardas’ Macabre S.224 (1881-82) or Dance of Death is full of “forbidden” parallel fifths. Certainly, Bartok knew this work, and it may well have influenced him. The version heard here represents Liszt’s concluding thoughts.

Nuages Gris is remarkable. Full of unresolved harmonies and soft dissonances, this enigmatic work presents a musical evocation of its title - Grey Clouds. The liner notes explain that “Liszt once said that his ambition was to cast a lance into the future of music. It hit the mark.” I sense a foretelling of musical impressionism here. It is hardly surprising that Debussy was a fan of this piece.

The second disc opens with the Ballade No.2, S.171 completed in 1853. As with many examples with this title, Liszt does not give a clue as to a possible underlying narrative. The chances are there was none, yet a world of meaning emerges from these pages. The Ballade is written in the “grand manner” with a good balance between passages of great drama and considerable beauty. The success of this piece depends not only on huge technical skills but on the soloist providing the details of a story that does not (probably) exist. From dark and stormy moods to pleading and longing, this Ballade provides a roller coaster of emotion. The pianist splendidly develops and envelops it here.

I loved the Schubert/Liszt: Impromptu in G-flat major, S.565b. This is perfect in Schubert’s own original version, but here the sheer Romanticism is exaggerated in the closing bars. Scrumptious.

I doubt whether many visitors to Venice will relate to the La Lugubre Gondola, S.200 (1884). “Lugubre” = “Dismal,” and refers to the funereal gondolas draped in black which are sometimes seen on the canals. Most tourists will not regard a trip on this mode of transport as anything other than sheer pleasure and delight unless the gondolier’s bill takes them by surprise. It was written for Richard Wagner. The first version was completed during December 1882, when Liszt was staying at Palazzo Vendramin on the Grand Canal. The German composer was unwell, and Liszt regarded this music as a premonition. Three months later, Wagner was dead. Kenneth Hamilton notes that La Lagubre Gondola “underwent several revisions before reaching the version heard on this disc, which was likely composed shortly before Liszt’s own death in 1886.” This remarkably sad and melancholic piece has echoes of Tristan and Felix Mendelssohn’s Venetian Gondola Songs. Spookily, it ends with thunder, signalling Wagner, with all his faults, entering Valhalla.

En Reve (Nocturne), S.207 (1885) may nod towards the “inventor” of the Nocturne, the Dublin-born John Field (1782-1837). It begins in dream like trance, before developing into a “thicket of surprisingly complex and delightful harmonies.” The ending is enigmatic.

The final work in this recital is the wonderful transcription of Isoldes Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, S.447. I am not a Wagner enthusiast, except bizarrely for the orchestral excerpts from his operas. I can happily leave the five-hour show for future consideration (ha!) and enjoy Liszt’s beautiful piano re-working. It must rank as one of his finest and most successful transcriptions.

The playing here is superb. Kenneth Hamilton brings a numinous quality to Liszt’s music that is often absent in other performances. Sometimes this is intangible, as it ought to be. The recording complements this in every way.

The booklet is essay length and provides most of the details that the listener needs. It includes a brief biography of the pianist. I do wish that Prima Facie had included the S (Searle) numbers in the track listing. Liszt enthusiasts will know that often several versions of each piece exist. These numbers make identification so much easier. Interestingly, they are included on the track information encoded on the actual CD. The dates in the track listing would have been helpful too, to avoid scanning the small print of the notes. I have added these, hopefully correctly.

Kenneth Hamilton has told me that this is the first CD in a series. However, he does not intend to make it into a complete cycle such as Leslie Howard did on the Hyperion label. It is envisaged that it may reach ten volumes. I understand that the second and third volumes have already been recorded. No. 2 is subtitled Salon and Stage and features several arrangements and transcriptions of music by Richard Wagner, Franz Schubert, Charles Gounod and Giuseppe Verdi, amongst others. The third will include Book 3 of Années de pèlerinage and associated pieces such as À la Chapelle Sixtine. A further volume in planning is entitled Demonic and Divine and may incorporate works such as the Mephisto Waltzes, the St Francis Legends, etc.

Altogether an illuminating and enjoyable release from Prima Facie that ticks all the boxes of excellence.

John France
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Funérailles (Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173/7) (1849) [11:58]
Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173/3) (1851) [15:29]
Csárdás Macabre S.224 (1881-82) [7:12]
Pensée des Morts (Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173/4) (1834, rev.1851) [12:14]
Nuages Gris, S.199 (1881) [2:40]
Sonata in B minor, S.178 (1852-53) [27:23]
Ballade No 2 in B minor, S.171 (1853) [14:36]
En rêve (Nocturne), S.207 (1885) [2:09]
Abschied (Farewell): Russian Folksong, S.251 (1885) [2:30]
Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth, S.274 (1841) [6:08]
Dem Andenken Petofis, S.195 (1877) [3:36]
Ave Maria (Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173) (1846) [6:29]
Transcriptions by Liszt
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Impromptu in G-flat major, S.565b (1840) [6:19]
Prelude on Weinen, klagen, Sorgen, Zagen S.179 (1859) [5:43]
La Lugubre Gondola, S.200 (1884-5) [4:21]
Romance "O pauraque donc," S.169 (1848) [3:21]
Romance Oubliée, S.527 (1880) [3:28]
Die Lorelei, S.273 (1856) [6:29]
In Festo Transfigurationis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, S.188 (1880) [2:31]
Richard WAGNER (1813-83)
Isoldens Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, S.447 (1867) [7:11]

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