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Chris Green
Opus Klassiek, October 2011

The symphonic poems are amongst Liszt’s most significant contribution to musical development. The recording catalogue is not short of excellent recordings but in this selection I must mention two. From Naxos Records there is a most impressive programme of three of the thirteen poems with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Halasz…I am increasingly becoming impressed with the quality of the band from “down under”, and here they do not disappoint with a thrilling account of this trio of symphonic poems ending Battle of the Huns (Hunnenschlacht). © 2011 www.opusklassiek.nl




Penguin Guide, January 2009

Both Chandos and Naxos are making a survey of Liszt’s symphonic poems, and while in this instance Halász and his New Zealand forces don’t quite equal the outstanding excellence of the Chandos recording, this collection is still impressively played and recorded, and many collectors may feel that the Naxos price is about right for these works. They are by no means top-quality Liszt but are still worth having on disc when the performances are so idiomatically committed.



Peter J. Rabinowitz
Fanfare, June 2007

"I praised the initial release in Halasz's cycle of the Liszt symphonic poems for its coarse energy and its refusal to skirt the music's melodrama—and while I haven't heard the second installment, this latest (the third) lives up to the high expectations generated by the first."

"The orchestra supports the crackling interpretations magnificently—they may not have the kind of brass lung power we get, say, from Chicago, but the grit of the strings in their more dynamic episodes and the personality of the woodwinds in their solos are sufficient compensation. Balances are exceptional throughout—and the engineers don't get in the way. All in all, a superb release."



Haller
American Record Guide, December 2006

Michael Halasz's earlier sallies into the Liszt tone poems seemed to improve in direct proportion to their obscurity. His first CD for Naxos containing Les Preludes, Tasso, Mazeppa, and Prometheus struck me as rather pedestrian, whereas the second release comprising Die Ideale, From the Cradle to the Grave and Hamlet along with Orpheus (July/Aug 1998) was remarkable for the way he held one's interest. Now more than eight years later we finally have Volume 3, and once again I can only marvel how well Halasz is able to pull together some of Liszt's most discursive efforts-save perhaps for Battle of the Huns- and, even more remarkable, convey this obvious feel for the music to the New Zealand players.

The greatest miracle in the earlier set was the way he vitalized what may be the most rambling of all Liszt's tone poems, Die Ideale; and he pulls off a similar revelation with Ce Qu'on Entend sur La Montagne (Mountain Symphony). Liszt's first effort in the genre and in many ways a fascinating piece, not least for the evocative opening in terraced string tremolos over a low drumroll that may well have influenced D'Indy's Jour d'Ete a La Montagne (the two openings are eerily similar) but also for Liszt's expert balancing of the two disparate elements set forth in the Victor Hugo poem, belligerent writing that depicts Man's inherent violent demeanor set against radiant, even beatific string writing representing the glorious voice of Nature itself. But Liszt didn't know when to stop, and so the two factions have at it for what seems like an eternity-here 29:13. Gianandrea Noseda on Chandos takes a minute and a half longer, yet lambastes the more tumultuous pages until you wonder how Nature can even get a word in edgewise (Jan/Feb 2006). I went back and sampled the sets by Haitink, Masur, and Joo (Nov/Dec 1988)-all of whom I liked better than Noseda-but I really don't think you can go wrong with this splendid new Naxos.

Festklünge was Liszt's wedding gift to his beloved Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, her Polish origins celebrated by the buoyant polonaise rhythms midway in; unfortunately, the wedding failed to come off (for one thing, her husband objected) and Liszt reworked the score into the form we know it today. Even Poles may wonder why one prominent theme sounds so much like O Canada (!), first heard as a yearning strain in the strings (1:14) before sounding forth triumphantly at the close. In the absence of the volatile Solti recording that Decca continues to keep hidden in their vault, I have in the past had occasion to praise Emin Khachaturian on Audiophile (Jan/Feb 2002); while my colleague John Landis called attention to the highly stimulating combination of Festklünge, Hungaria and Hamlet with Mark Ermler on a long-deleted Melodiya release (May/June 1992). Fortunately, Halasz, like Solti, gets it just right: this is a jubilant performance of jubilant music, smartly played and, like everything else here, afforded resonant, yet crisply detailed sonies.

No one has ever whaled the bejeezus out of Battle of the Huns like Hermann Scherchen (Mar/Apr 2002), and Halasz-wisely, perhaps-doesn't even try. This is a good, sturdy reading in the same solid vein as Mehta- the London, not the Sony. Unlike Scherchen, you get a huge blare from the organ at the end that would make even the warring Hun and Roman spirits lie back down and be quiet.

Listen, two out of three ain't bad for this stuff; and certainly Halasz's splendid readings of the Mountain Symphony and Festkliinge are more than enough to recommend this one at such slight cost. My only question is, since the two remaining tone poems- Hungaria and Heroide Funebre- are hardly enough to fill a CD, what else to include? I'd cast a vote for Liszt's patriotic fantasy Szozat und Hymnus­otherwise unavailable outside the five- disc Joo set- the Second Mephisto Waltz offered by Masur, and possibly the hard-to-find Festal March for the Goethe Centenary, just for starters.



Michael Cookson
MusicWeb International, October 2006

This is the third volume of the continuing Naxos project to record the thirteen symphonic poems of Franz Liszt. The first two volumes were also conducted by Michael Halász and are available on Naxos 8.550487 and 8.553355.

A New Zealand Orchestra is performing the works of a Hungarian-born composer who was a major protagonist in the New German School of Music? There’s no need to worry. Although an orchestra may have a tradition of playing a home-composer’s music it certainly doesn’t have the monopoly on delivering first-class interpretations. I now believe that holding onto these blinkered principles for many years only deprived me of enjoying many superbly performed works. Examples of excellent recorded performances recently heard include Beethoven from Nashville, Tennessee; Mahler and Shostakovich from Australia; Bernstein from New Zealand; Barber from Scotland; J.S. Bach from Japan; Shostakovich from Italy and Rimsky-Korsakov from Malaysia. Now I can confidently add Liszt symphonic poems played by a New Zealand Orchestra to the roll.

During the 1840s and 1850s Liszt was primarily responsible for creating the genre of the symphonic poem (sinfonische dichtung) - a cycle of single-movement orchestral works. In the symphonic poem the score is programmatic, developing material that is pictorial, literary or even based on an idea to suggest an emotion or scene in musical terms.

Liszt’s first symphonic poem was Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne (What is heard on the mountain) which is based on the poem of the same name by Victor Hugo. It has a rather convoluted history. During his Weimar years Liszt completed the score in 1849, which was orchestrated by his assistant Joachim Raff, who also orchestrated a second version in 1850. A final version was written and orchestrated by Liszt himself in 1857.

Here Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne (track 2) is convincing and purposeful. The opening sections from 0.00-6.03 are dense and cacophonous dominated by heavy brass and low strings. The entrance of the harp at 7.29 heralds a passage of relative calm. At 10.00-12.25 I enjoyed the extended agitated section that could easily represent an impending storm. Also notable is the highly effective brass episode from 13.44 that is replaced by the woodwind at 14.20-14.47 and then by the strings at 14.48-15.27. I believe the attractive short section at 16.00-16.26 could easily represent birdsong. To my ears the harp at 17.04-17.15 introduces a brief and persuasive seascape effect followed by birdsong once again at 17.15-17.42 on the woodwind. At 18.21 Halász provides a thrilling adventure that intensifies on the brass laden homeward journey.

In 1853 Liszt composed Festklänge (Festival Sounds) which was his seventh symphonic poem. We are told little about the work other than that it was inspired by the vain prospect of marriage to Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a Polish heiress, who was the estranged wife of the Russian Prince Nicholas.

In Festklänge (track 1) Liszt appears eager to impress with extravagant and repeated orchestral effects. Halász and the NZSO try their best in this challenging romantic repertoire but the uneven quality and inspiration of Liszt’s scoring makes achieving a coherent flow a difficult assignment. I loved the muted strings from 10.31 to 11.08 followed by a layer of woodwind at l1.09-11.28 that to me evokes a Mendelssohnian mood of fairies, elves and woodland glades, an effect repeated at 12.51-13.37. Most appealing is the short waltz-like episode at 13.38-14.04. From 16.50 Michael Halász most impressively cranks up a dense orchestral climax.

The eleventh symphonic poem Hunnenschlacht (Battle of the Huns) was composed in 1857 in response to a fresco by the painter Wilhelm von Kaulbach. The score represents the horrific battle at the gates of Rome between the Christian Emperor Theodoric and the pagan King Attila the Hun.

A strong case is made for Hunnenschlacht (track 3) with an exciting reading. Surely intended to represent the disturbing chaos of battle, the vigorous and robust opening section gives the impression that a terrifying pursuit is in progress. The brief passages for woodwind with plucked strings add colour at 2.16-2.22 and 2.55-3.02. Short brass outbursts at 4.08-4-13 and 4.29-4.41 are extremely successful. I enjoyed the effective glimpse of optimism at 5.47-6.07, followed by an orchestral climax at 6.08-6.20. The introduction of the solo organ with its hymn at 6.29-6.47; 7.07-7.21 and at 7.44-8.84 are high points. I loved the woodwind passages, that increase in length, between 9.36-10.57. From 11.44 the orchestra builds in intensity and the launch of the organ at 12.27, so evocative of the conclusion to the Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 ‘Organ’, serves to enhance the excitement. Liszt’s superb score ends in triumph at 14.14.

Overall these are fine performances that are high on commitment and long on character. Providing the appropriate momentum consistently seemed especially challenging for Halász in the first and seventh poems, where I would have preferred an increased fluidity to the playing. One senses some hesitancy in these densely textured and unforgiving scores that can seem heavy going at times. Overall the New Zealand woodwind are to be congratulated for their pleasing contribution. I did however have reservations about the unity of some of the brass playing at several points in Festklänge. The clear and well-balanced sound is of a high standard as are the booklet notes provided by Keith Anderson.

I do not have any recommendable versions of these three Symphonic Poems in my collection. However, the recordings that are most likely to be encountered are available in a 5 CD set of Liszt’s works for orchestra performed by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Kurt Masur on EMI Classics (7243 574521 20). An alternative also recommended to me is the five disc set of Liszt’s complete Symphonic Poems from the Budapest Symphony Orchestra under Arpad Joó on Hungaroton HCD12677-81.

Halász and the NZSO prove sterling advocates for these highly colourful and eventful, if often overlooked, symphonic poems.



Bryce Morrison
Gramophone, October 2006

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David Hurwitz
ClassicsToday.com, August 2006

This third volume of Naxos' ongoing series of Liszt tone poems under Michael Halász is easily the best so far. Festklänge begins with one of Liszt's most arresting ideas, remarkably modern in character with harmony that doesn't have to be chromatic to sound interesting. Halász and the New Zealand Symphony deliver a sparkling performance, impulsive and rhythmically taut, and the work sounds much shorter than its 18-minute length might suggest. That is no mean achievement in music that admittedly has structural issues and tends to drag in less enthusiastic hands.

Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne also goes very well. The natural sonics capture the atmospheric opening (with its then-novel bass drum rolls) very effectively. If you know your Sibelius, you will recognize these first few minutes as the conceptual forebear of the Finnish composer's En Saga. Yes, the work's various sections tend to lie side by side rather than flow inevitably into one another, but it's a lovely piece that doesn't deserve its current neglect in the concert hall. Hunnenschlacht is just plain fun: a noisy battle followed by an organ-led apotheosis. Once again Halász and company deliver the goods, with fine playing and a vivid sense of drama. Also, to their credit, they don't linger over the less-interesting music representing the "good guys". In short, these are intelligent and effective performances that deliver maximum bang for your buck. Give them a shot.



Penguin Guide, July 2006

Liszt's Battle of the Huns takes its subject from a painting of the struggle between the Christian Emperor Theodoric and the pagan Attila the Hun. " Michael Halasz has the full meaasure of this repertoire and this is one of the most successful collections of Liszt'z symphonic poems."






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