Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Review: Liszt - Funeral Odes, From the Cradle to the Grave, Two Episodes from Lenau's "Faust" - Volkov - Hyperion, 2010


[Review originally written in 2011.]

4 stars for the interpretation, plus 1 star for the courage

It is just wonderful to see a brand new disc (recorded in 2010) dedicated entirely to Liszt rarities. Hyperion are thus doing a far better job in celebrating the 200th anniversary from Liszt's birth than DG, EMI, SONY or Brilliant who seem stuck with mammoth compilations of dubious value. All works on this disc are among Liszt's most rarely performed symphonic creations and each one of them has received no more than a few recordings. Therefore, this is a most worthy addition to a fairly slender discography, its minor faults being excused by the extreme rarity of the music.

Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (''From the Cradle to the Grave'') is Liszt's last, 13th, symphonic poem, composed as late as 1881, full two decades after the last such work from the Weimar period was published. Apart from the several complete recordings of Liszt's symphonic poems (
Haitink, Masur, Joo, Halasz, Noseda), I think it has been recorded separately only by Georg Solti. It is a beautiful work that does not deserve so high degree of neglect. The outer two parts are tranquil and ethereal, written and scored with the economy so characteristic for Liszt's late years, and very fitting to evoke the ''cradle'' and ''grave'' indeed. The middle part is very short but very tempestuous, looking back to the Romantic rhetoric of the Weimar years and trying to convey with music the struggle for existence that occupies most of our lives.

Trois Odes funèbres are an even greater rarity. Apart from Leslie Howard's recording of the solo piano versions in volume 3 of his unique series, I think only Halasz and Rickenbacher have recorded the orchestral versions (Halasz, indeed, has recorded only the last one). Since I have never heard either, this performance was my introduction to these gloomy and brooding works which, apparently, had a great deal of personal significance for Liszt. Composed between 1860 and 1866, they reflected the death of two of his children, his son Daniel in 1859 and his elder daughter Blandine in 1862, which presumably inspired the composition of Les Morts and La Notte, respectively.

Les Morts is a beautiful and serene piece, quoting from several religious chants and with a most moving inclusion of a chorus singing few lines in Latin, the first one of which – ''Happy the dead that die in the Lord!'' – is taken from Lamennais' poem. La Notte employs the haunting theme from ''Il Penseroso'', a piano piece composed as early as 1839 and later revised for the second book of Années de pèlerinage; incidentally, Liszt also used the same quatrain from Michelangelo which is supposed, together with the eponymous sculpture, to have inspired him to create one of his most disturbing creations, in whatever version you choose to listen to it. If anything, the main theme sounds even more brooding in its orchestral guise. Unlike the piano piece, here there is an entirely new central section of exquisite beauty and the early thematic material is additionally developed. Finally, there is Le Triomphe funebre du Tasso (''The Funeral Triumph of Tasso'') which also uses old material from one of Liszt's earliest symphonic poems (Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo) describing the life and struggles of the Italian Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso. The funeral ode refers to his posthumous fame and is an entirely original composition. It has an admirable restraint altogether different than the grand finale of the symphonic poem composed more than a decade earlier.

All in all, I am not sure that any of these three Funeral Odes is Liszt at his orchestral best, but they are well worth hearing none the less for that. It is wonderful that they are recorded here as a set, exactly as Liszt wished them to be performed.

Zwei Episoden aus Lenaus Faust is the earliest work on the disc, having being completed by 1861. The second of these ''episodes'' is no other than the famous Mephisto Waltz No. 1, much more popular in its earlier version for solo piano. Still, the orchestral version has been recorded by several great conductors such as 
Karajan, Solti and Haitink. Thus the nearly complete neglect of the first of these episodes, Der nächtliche Zug, is all the more difficult to explain. Apart from the present one, I know of only three other recordings of it, all of them together with the Mephisto Waltz and all of them worth hearing: Masur, Ansermet, Joo. The works work surprisingly fine as a set, which is of course how they should be performed and recorded. It is interesting to note that Ilan Volkov uses the alternative, quiet, ending rather than the better-known, but less appropriate I think, loud orchestral tour de force. So far as I can remember, Ansermet is the only other conductor who does that.


The very young Ilan Volkov (b. 1976) has done a fine job at the helm of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. My only quibble with his conducting is certain timidity which is hardly desirable even in the essentially introvert Funeral Odes, let alone in the ebullient sections of the Mephisto Waltz. That said, for so young a man Volkov demonstrates, I think, a firm grasp of the orchestra and a remarkable understanding of this not particularly easy to assimilate music. He certainly may use a little fire in the climaxes, but on the whole he is quite sensitive to Liszt's ingenious orchestration and strange melodic ideas. Apart from Karajan and Solti, for whose demonic drive he is no match, Volkov’s Mephisto Waltz stands only too well comparisons with the renditions of Masur (not so dismal as in most of his Liszt recordings) or Haitink (wonderfully musical, but meek and mild). Even though I do prefer the grander approach of Joo or Ansermet in Der nächtliche Zug, I find Volkov none the less fascinating for that.


The recorded sound is well produced, with great clarity and dynamic range, but with somewhat shoddy tutti and lack of depth in the strings. It is true that most of this music avoids massive orchestral climaxes, but a more prominent brass and better balanced percussion instruments, why not more volume in the strings, might have had a beneficial effect in the Funeral Odes and especially in the Faust Episodes. After all, even in his later years Liszt never fully abandoned the occasional burst of – if you choose to believe – genuine, sincere and healthy dose of rhetoric. Indeed, Liszt might have agreed with Somerset Maugham that excess on occasion is exhilarating for it prevents moderation from acquiring the deadening effect of a habit. 

The booklet is very finely done, with a most suitable painting by Caspar David Friedrich on the cover. The liner notes are by Leslie Howard himself and he provides the same kind of concise and perceptive analyses of the history of composition and the musical value of each work as we well know he is capable of. There are here many insightful touches that are bound to raise your appreciation of these works. For instance, Liszt not only based Les Morts on the eponymous literary work by Lamennais (quoted in full in the liner notes), but he actually followed the poem verse by verse with his music, repeating the same motif every time the aforementioned line (''Happy the dead that die in the Lord!'') occurs. So this appears to be one of the very few examples in Liszt's oeuvre where he wrote pure program music with distinctly descriptive character. Contrary to the popular misunderstanding, most of Liszt's program music was much more concerned with philosophical ideas, characters, moods and impressions, rather than with narrative of events or description of details. The amazing thing about Les Morts is that it doesn't sound loose or fragmented as one might expect. Another fascinating detail from Leslie's liner notes is the musical reference to Liszt's Hungarian rhapsodies in the middle section of La Notte – which cannot be missed even by the layman – which symbolises Liszt's own feeling that he would die far from his native Hungary. He was quite right as it turned out, but to dispel any doubt about the middle part of La Notte he inserted above the opening phrase the words of Virgil from his Aeneid: ''And dying he remembers fair Argos''.

All in all, an excellent disc for every Lisztian, or for anybody anxious to explore some of Liszt's most introverted and atmospheric music from his late years. Beautifully selected, decently recorded, lavishly presented, perfectly filled (nearly 79 minutes) and, most importantly, well played and sensitively interpreted, this CD is a must even at full price. Let us hope that all works on it will be more frequently recorded in the future.

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