Saturday, 22 November 2014

Review: Franz Liszt - Orchestral Works - Kurt Masur - 7CDs, EMI

Franz Liszt
(1811  1886)

Orchestra Works
Works for Piano and Orchestra

Michel Béroff, piano
Gewandhaus-Orchester Leipzig
Kurt Masur

Contents*: the 13 symphonic poems, the Faust and Dante Symphonies, the Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust (Der nächtliche Zug and Mephisto Waltz No. 1), the Piano Concertos, Malediction, Totentanz, the Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Themes, the Fantasias on Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens and Berlioz’s Lelio, and Liszt’s orchestration of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasie and arrangement of Weber’s Polonaise Brillante.

Recorded: 1977-80, Paul Gerhardt-Kirche, Leipzig.

Masur and Liszt: A Perfect Mismatch

The praise lavished on these legendary recordings really baffles me.

As I keep repeating myself, Kurt Masur is entirely unfit by temperament to conduct Liszt at all. The man has absolutely no sense of drama, let alone the sweeping Romantic passion a solid dose of which is essential for interpreting Liszt’s orchestral music. Besides, his musicianship is open to a very serious debate. His tempi are almost always ridiculously fast, and monotonously so indeed; his dynamic range is worthy of a chamber orchestra, at best, and his climaxes are virtually indistinguishable from the rest; he often brings into prominence details of Liszt's orchestration which only make his compositions look much the worse for them.

Everybody who listens to Masur’s box-set and forms an opinion of Liszt as a really trashy composer has my complete sympathy and understanding. So far as I know, there are at least three other complete recordings of Liszt's symphonic poems (Haitink, Joo, Noseda), and none of them does these marvellous works full justice. Yet each one of them is greatly superior to Masur’s incoherent orchestral rambling. But enough vague ranting! Let’s take a closer look to the performances on these seven discs which are rife with examples.

Masur’s Faust Symphony may well be the worst I have ever heard on record. To say that it is preposterously fast would be a gross understatement; ''Gretchen'' is indeed pure travesty. The first part (''Faust'') sounds so much like a parody itself that it is very difficult to see that the third part (''Mephistopheles'') is intended to be its (first part’s) parody; the tenor and the choir are no improvement, either. It is an excellent example of what is typical for Masur’s conducting in the whole set: vapid, tepid, timid, unimaginative, insensitive, exasperatingly incompetent and excruciatingly tedious. The man does not appear to have even the slightest idea how to sustain a melodic line or build a dramatic climax, let alone conveying anything of the philosophical depth of the work. Despite his fast tempi, Masur somehow manages to be way more difficult to listen to in toto than interpretations more than 10 minutes longer. Even 
Bernstein’s rendition with the Boston Symphony on DG, which is far from my first choice, is infinitely superior to Masur's mess. Any comparison with the excellent Muti, Inbal, SoltiBeecham and Horenstein, or even the mediocre Sinopoli, Barenboim, Chailly and Rattle, is just out of the question.

The Dante Symphony fairs better, but not much better. At least the brass is sufficiently well presented. But I-am-missing-the-plane tempo makes the famous opening sound like a soundtrack of a third-rate horror movie. Masur continues in the same lame and shoddy manner right until the Magnificat, which is at least well sung, if not well played. The truth is that Liszt’s Dante Symphony, like pretty much all of his symphonic works but a little more than most, requires from a conductor what I would call a “subtle grandeur”, if you forgive the oxymoron. Masur definitely lacks sensitivity and subtlety, almost completely indeed; he certainly has nothing grand or Romantic in his make-up. Even rather mediocre recordings like those under the batons of Haenchen, Lehel or Conlon
(this last one is compromised by the sound quality only; otherwise a fine rendition) capture something of the infernal yet lyrical spirit of this work. Masur captures nothing but mindless noise. Certainly, he is not in the league of Sinopoli on DG or Barenboim on TELDEC.

As far as the 13 symphonic poems are concerned, Masur scores some mild success with the most lyrical of them, most notably Orpheus and Liszt’s last work in the genre, Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe, where his weird ideas of orchestral colour may on occasion even be insightful. Unfortunately, almost all of Liszt's poems rely of sharp contrasts between serene, tranquil lyrical passages and highly-charged dramatic ones. And here Masur’s renditions are simply pathetic, especially considering his next to non-existent brass. Mazeppa and Tasso are pure abominations, light years away from 
Karajan's stupendous recordings with the Berliners; and so is Les Preludes, for that matter. Prometheus cannot stand any kind of comparison with Soltis impassioned rendition with the London Philharmonic, either. Needless to say, Masur’s mad rushing completely ruins a grave funeral march such as Heroide Funebre.

It is indeed difficult to find anything redeeming in any of these recordings. Despite Masur’s absurdly fast pace, the longer poems such as Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne, Festklänge, Hungaria or Die Ideale always sound much too long, too sketchy and too amateurish. Under the baton of Arpad Joo they don’t; not even under the batons of Haitink and Noseda who, though largely missing the Lisztian point, still manage to capture more of his spirit than Kurt Masur at his best does.

The rest of the symphonic works without piano in this collection receive the same messy kind of treatment. Masur’s First and Second Mephisto Waltzes sound more like Hungarian rhapsodies; a Mephistopheles as a kind of cheap Gypsy trickster, again. Der nächtliche Zug is surprisingly fine, though; for once, to some extent at least, Masur is free of his appalling mannerisms of tempo and phrasing. It might be that the monstrous oblivion this piece has fallen into – it is almost never recorded – helps Masur, too; even that, however, can’t save his Second Mephisto Waltz, which is even rarer on record. Fortunately, Arpad Joo recorded all three works for Hungaroton as “bonus tracks” to his complete recording of the poems; despite the inferior sound, he is infinitely superior to Masur musically.

Speaking of sound, for recordings made for EMI in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the sound is remarkably unbalanced. How much of that is due to Masur’s (mis)interpretations, how much to the recording engineers, and how much to the orchestral players themselves, I really do not know. What I do know, however, is that the strings are gloriously recorded here, rich and sonorous, with tremendously effective bass, whereas the woodwinds are scratchy and the brass is almost uniformly dismal. What’s more, the last two groups of instruments are often victims of truly sloppy execution – something one is right not to expect in a supposedly world-class orchestra.

The last two discs contain a fine selection of Liszt’s works for piano and orchestra with the dependable Michel Béroff as a soloist. The best about these recordings is that they include many under-recorded rarities such as Liszt’s wonderful orchestration of Schubert's Wanderer Fantasie, his remarkable work for piano and strings known as Malediction, and even his Great Fantasy on Motives from Berlioz's Lelio. In addition, both concertos, the ever-popular Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Melodies and Totentanz are also included.

Despite the charming comprehensiveness, any of these works has been served much better elsewhere on record. Leslie Howard, for one, has recorded the complete works for piano and orchestra on Hyperion; although his orchestral accompaniment is nothing special, it is still better than Masur’s. Jorge Bolet has recorded outstanding renditions of the Hungarian Fantasia, Malediction and Totentanz on DECCA with Georg Solti and Ivan Fischer; the two concertos he recorded splendidly for another label (VOX, 1979), though together with the Masur-like David Zinman on the rostrum. Louis Lortie and Nelson Freier on Brilliant make another more or less complete set which is musically and technically superior to Beroff and Masur.

Why would I give this box-set two stars out of five, then? Yes, I am wondering about that, too. Partly because Masur’s dedication to Liszt, despite his sincere yet painful inability to conduct his works, is rather touching for everybody who cares about Liszt's symphonic oeuvre. Furthermore, this set includes many rarely performed works which, regrettably, remain neglected even today, more than thirty years after these recordings were made. It is surely unreasonable to be angry with Masur for his lack of musicianship or Lisztian temperament. But I am not sure it makes much sense listening to his recordings – even if you can find them cheaply.

Haitink on DECCA/PHILIPS, timid as he is too, is a great deal finer musician than Masur, and he is better served in terms of recording quality; his set lacks any bonus tracks save the First Mephisto Waltz, though. Noseda on Chandos is wonderfully musical and well recorded but dramatically weak and sonically dull. Despite several shortcomings, Arpad Joo on Hungaroton/Brilliant remains my first choice for a complete recording of Liszt's symphonic poems together with a fine selection of “bonus tracks”. Unfortunately, yet expectedly, the sound of his set, though digital, is rather inferior in terms of dynamics and sonority to anything that DECCA and Chandos offer; but it is much better balanced than EMI’s bizarre stuff.

In short, Kurt Masur’s box-set loses on all fronts: sonic, artistic and financial!

* Contents and recording details from the booklet:

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