(1811 – 1886)
Complete Symphonic Poems
Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne; Tasso; Les Preludes; Orpheus;
Prometheus; Mazeppa; Festklänge; Héroïde funèbre; Hungaria;
Hamlet; Hunneschlacht; Die Ideale; Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe;
[bonus tracks:] Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust (Der nächtliche Zug; Mephisto Waltz No. 1); Mephisto Waltz No. 2; Szozat & Hymnus
The finest complete set of Liszt's symphonic poems musically, if not sonically
So far as I am concerned, this is the finest complete recording of Liszt’s monstrously under-recorded symphonic poems. The sole reason for this is Arpad Joo, whose conducting is neither as rushed as Masur’s nor as deliberate as Haitink’s, least of all is it as timid and cautious as Noseda’s. Overall, speaking of pure musicianship, Joo is superior to his three colleagues in every way. His interpretations are much better paced, combining passion and drama with rare understanding of Liszt’s orchestration; his climaxes are excellently executed and so are the many beautiful melodic lines.
That said, speaking of separate symphonic poems, Arpad Joo hardly comes close to my favourites. I do not share some other reviewers’ passion for Scherchen’s shoddy renditions on Westminster or Beecham’s rough and rude Orpheus on EMI, but I can certainly say that Karajan’s Mazeppa, Tasso, Les Preludes and the First Mephisto Waltz as well as Solti’s Prometheus or Haitink’s Orpheus and Hamlet are more Lisztian than Joo's recordings, fine as the latter in themselves may be. But in the more rarely performed poems – indeed, they are never performed and but seldom recorded – Arpad Joo shines as an outstanding Lisztian. Héroïde funèbre, Die Ideale, Festklänge or Hungaria are fabulously done and rivalled only by Golovanov’s more or less unobtainable (and recorded is horrible sound, unfortunately) old recordings. As for the Second Mephisto Waltz and Der nächtliche Zug, Joo’s interpretations are embarrassingly superior to Masur’s, which seem to be the only ones around. (Except for Der nächtliche Zug with Ansermet on DECCA, the first one to appear on LP, and the relatively new Volkov on Hyperion.)
However, comparisons in the cases of Haitink or Solti are particularly difficult because the differences in the sound quality are indeed enormous. For my part, Karajan’s Liszt recordings from the 1960s and the 1970s are essentially beyond any comparison, but I would venture the bold suggestion that Joo's Hamlet or Prometheus would have been every bit as fine, if not better, than Haitink’s or Solti’s, respectively, had he had the same orchestral and recording opportunities.
By far the biggest letdown of Arpad Joo’s cycle is indeed the sound. It is a digital one from 1984-85 but it was recorded for Hungaroton, and the Budapest Symphony is hardly among the finest orchestras in Europe. Now, the sound is very good, with a fine degree of clarity and not at all bad dynamic range. But the strings often are thin, dry and lacking in sonority; and the brass, when prominent enough, is almost always somewhat harsh and unpleasant. As it might be imagined, such sound is detrimental to many of Liszt’s poems which rely heavily on the brass, such as Mazeppa, Hunnenschlacht or Héroïde funèbre. Still, the recordings are highly enjoyable for Arpad Joo’s sheer musicianship which is all but impeccable and does compensate for whatever sonic shortcomings his recordings may have.
It is a great pity, indeed, that Joo is often compromised by technical matters. To give but one example, he takes the glorious finale of Tasso unusually slowly, something that does emphasise its grandeur, but unfortunately needs orchestral players of extraordinary ability and brass instruments of the highest quality, to say nothing of impeccable sonics. The fellows of the Budapest Symphony are doing a fine job and I am inclined to think that the recording venue or equipment, or both, are the major reason for the inferior sound; appallingly sloppy playing, as often happens under Masur’s baton, is virtually non-existent here. I really do wonder what Arpad Joo might have achieved had he had DECCA and the London Philharmonic at his disposal. He would have put Haitink to shame, that’s for sure.
All in all, excellent set worth the money and the time of every Lisztian. All five discs come in the traditional jewel cases, not in those space-saving but ugly cardboard boxes, and in a handsome slipcase. Each booklet contains fine – but badly edited! – essay by Andras Batta discussing the history and the music of each symphonic poem. Normally, I would give the set four stars because of the sound only, but since comparisons with the three other complete recordings are inevitable, and the Masur-Haitink-Noseda trio is no match for Arpad Joo’s profound understanding of Liszt’s symphonic idiom, the set deserves five full stars.