Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Review: Liszt - Symphonic Poems - Karajan - 2CDs, DG

The Definitive Tasso and Mazeppa + several fine bonuses

Probably no other composer and no other works have received more bashing from all and sundry than Liszt and his symphonic poems. Therefore, it is only fare that I – as an unabashed Lisztian – should start with their defence.

That Liszt's thirteen symphonic poems are uneven as a whole is of course beyond dispute; then again, so are Beethoven's symphonies. What's more, this is to be expected. In the middle of the nineteenth century Liszt (together with Berlioz and Wagner) pushed the composition for orchestra to its absolute limits: of course he would produce an uneven body of works so revolutionary for their time. That said, it goes without saying that, whatever Liszt's place in musical history as innovator, his music in general and his symphonic poems in particular must stand or fall as music. It is the intrinsic value of music which grants its universal appeal and thus its greatness.

The problem with Liszt – and it is a big problem indeed – is that his overwhelming personality usually colours the perception of his works. No other composer's music has been described more often as ''shallow'', ''bombastic'' or ''vulgar''. The unpleasant truth is that the major reason for this is that most people think of Liszt as ''shallow, bombastic and vulgar'' personality, womaniser, charlatan and the greatest piano virtuoso in history – and we all know that great pianists simply don't make great composers (let's forget about Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Rachmaninoff for the sake of the argument). The second major reason for the ever-fashionable Liszt-bashing is that his music is often very badly played indeed. Have I heard these poems performed in so ''shallow, bombastic and vulgar'' a manner! Often but not always. There are few exceptions and Karajan is one of them. More about him a little later.

At least six of Liszt's thirteen symphonic poems are, to my mind, worthy of frequent performance and recording: Les Preludes, Mazeppa, Tasso, Orpheus, Prometheus and Hamlet. What most people call ''vulgar and bombastic'' in them, I prefer to call Romantic rhetoric. When this is present in the right dose and when it is coupled with certain amount of restraint and fine musicianship, these pieces sound stirring and exhilarating. Not the least remarkable thing about them is how different they are from one another. The melting lyricism of Orpheus is a far cry from the gloom of Hamlet, the sheer violence of Prometheus, or the grandeur of Mazeppa. As for Les Preludes and Tasso, the longest of the six, they are fine examples of contrasting sections, conveying a bewildering range of moods, and adroitly organised on the grand scale. The whole sextet of poems certainly makes for a rich and rewarding listening experience. There is hardly a weak moment in any of them.

The rest seven poems, however, are certainly uneven – which is, I repeat, historically and artistically inevitable. They all suffer, in one degree or another, from over-extension (Die Ideale), over-repetition (Bergsymphonie), and over-elaboration (Hungaria); and yes, sometimes the thematic material is far from distinguished (Hunnenschlacht). Yet none of them do I find impossible to listen to without interest, and indeed all of these poems do contain passages of great beauty and originality which make them worthy of occasional revival on the concert stage and on record. Some of them – notably Die Ideale, Hungaria and Heroide Funebre – are not so much inferior to the aforementioned sextet – at least when played with the right combination of abandon and sensitivity.

As for listening to all poems in a row, something which, oddly enough, has been brought as an argument against their value, this is of course pure nonsense. No one in his right mind would do that and to use it as a stick to beat the works with is, to put it mildly, unreasonable. Who can listen to Beethoven's nine symphonies in a row without getting bored? How about Bruckner's nine in one sitting?

To finish the introduction, I do wonder why when ''vulgar, bombastic and shallow'' music is discussed, everybody is only too eager to give Liszt as an example. What about Wagner, Berlioz, Bruckner, Mahler and Richard Strauss? A double standard seems to exist here. I venture the opinion that there is no such thing as ''vulgar, bombastic or shallow'' music. There are only ''vulgar, bombastic or shallow'' performances as well as grossly prejudiced people against certain music which they simply cannot at all identify with. Nothing wrong with the latter - it is only too natural - but the former should be stamped out.

Now, how about Karajan, Liszt and this stupendous collection recorded between 1960 and 1975 with the Berliner Philharmoniker[1] in their most glorious sound. Well, to begin with the sound, it has a spectacular clarity and a truly staggering dynamic range, though some of the depth of the original LPs might have been lost during the remastering (at least if Tasso is anything to go by, for it is the only one I knew first on LP). Some Karajan buffs miss the fuller sound of his EMI recordings, the so-called ''in-the-concert-hall'' effect as the cliché goes, but I am not one of them. For my part, precision and polish – in the best sense of these words – are by no means incompatible with beauty and passion. There are quite a few proofs on these two discs.

As for the interpretation, I believe I am far from being the only fan of Karajan who regrets that the great Salzburger never recorded more Liszt. Except for two more takes of Les Preludes, one digital (1983) and one from the late 1950s with the Philharmonia, and a couple of alternative Hungarian Rhapsodies[2], this set collects more or less all of Karajan's Liszt recordings. He could have done marvellous things with the Faust and the Dante symphonies, to say nothing of Orpheus, Prometheus, Hamlet or Der nächtliche Zug. For he is the perfect Lisztian conductor. I am not saying this lightly. Karajan had that elusive combination of passion and rhetoric, on the one hand, coupled with deep musicianship and subtlety, on the other, which most conductors lack either partially or completely: this is what often makes their Liszt sound either like a bombastic joke or a Bach on steroids. One of the reasons why Karajan so often reached great musical peaks is that he always took the music he conducted very seriously. There was no such thing as ''second-rate'' for him, let alone ''vulgar, bombastic or shallow''. Let's look at some fine Lisztian examples.

Karajan's Tasso and Mazeppa are by far the finest ones on record. Haitink, Masur, Joo, and Noseda don't even come close, nor do Solti, Silvestri, Scherchen, Fruhbeck de Burgos or Mehta in one or the other of these pieces. The only conductor whose Mazeppa (and Tasso, for that matter) I am ready to rank with Karajan's is Golovanov; despite the execrable sound quality (to say nothing of his extremely fast tempi!) of his old Russian recordings, the man is extremely exciting to listen to. Yet Karajan remains ultimately my absolutely first choice, not because of the great sound, but above all because of the inimitable grandeur yet the remarkable sensitivity of his renditions. The sweeping finales of both poems, for instance, have to be heard to be believed, but the same is true for the beautiful central lyrical section of Tasso or those wistful trumpets in the quiet parts of Mazeppa.

But in Les Preludes Karajan does have a competition. Not much, though. Perhaps only 
Solti brings similar excitement to this over-played but under-rated work. As for Karajan, he surpassed himself in this 1967 recording, which is far better than his earlier (1958) attempt with the Philharmonia and his later one (1983) again with the Berliners; the latter is also worth having, however, especially together with orchestral showpieces by Smetana and Sibelius as available in the DG Masters series. By the way, Solti made a great recording of Mephisto Waltz No. 1 too, again rivalling Karajan's monumental sound, though lacking his subtlety in the middle part.

The three rhapsodies here – whatever the mess with the numbers, they are nos. 2, 12 and 5 from the piano originals – make 
Dorati and Scherchen sound rather tame, though both are actually very fine musically. Karajan's Second rhapsody is positively bacchanalian and the Fifth, a noble funeral march, is all but heart-rending. Pity, indeed, that Karajan never recorded the rest three rhapsodies of the set officially orchestrated by ''Doppler and Liszt'', but unofficially solely by Liszt with an act of courtesy to the other Franz. Last but not least, Shura Cherkassky gives a splendid performance of the solo part in the popular Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Themes; so does Karajan, but these days I tend to prefer the 1984 recording of Bolet and Fischer for DECCA.

All in all, a fascinating double disc for Lisztians and Karajan admirers alike. Completists and Liszt bashers had better not listen to these recordings at all.

[1] Recorded: Berlin, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, 12/1960 (Fantasia), 2/1961 (Mazeppa), 4/1967 (Les Preludes, HR4), 9/1971 (Mephisto Waltz); Berlin, Philharmonie, 10/1975 (Tasso, HR2&5).

[2] These are as follows:
  • two recordings of Hunarian Rhapsody No. 2(2), 1958 with Philharmonia (EMI) and 1978 with the Berliner Philharmoniker (live, video, Unitel/DG 073 4493);
  • one recording of Hungarian Rhapsody No. 4(12), 1961, DG Originals, 447 4152;
  • three recordings of Hungarian Rhapsody No. 5, all with the Berliners, 1960 (Karajan: The Music, The Legend, press kit, DG 477 7097), 1984 (DG 413 5872) and 1985 (live, video, SONY SVD 46402).

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