, October 2008
“Since my return from Vienna I have worked pretty continuously on my Symphonic Poems which first and for a couple of years have been my life’s work.” Liszt (1856).
This continuing Naxos series of the Complete Piano Music, now standing at volume 29, has maintained an enviable level of consistency. Earlier this year I enjoyed volume 28 - Liszt’s transcription for two pianos of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 [8.570466]. Previously I had selected two discs from this series as my ‘2007 Records of the Year’: Volume 24 played by Giuseppe Andaloro on 8.557814 and volume 25 played by Alexandre Dossin on 8.557904.
This volume 29 in the series comprises Liszt's two piano transcriptions of four of his Symphonic Poems. The performers, the Kanazawa-Admony Piano Duo, are a married couple who have won several prestigious awards including first prize in the 2000 Tokyo Piano Duo Competition, the 2001 Rome Prize, the 2002 IBLA Grand Prize and recently the Menuhin Gold Prize in the 2005 Osaka international chamber music competition.
The opening work is Liszt’s third and best known symphonic poem Les Préludes, composed principally in 1854–56. It seems that Liszt originally wrote an overture to accompany four choral works. Later he composed another overture to Joseph Autran’s Les Quatre Éléments that incorporated some of the earlier music. Over a period of years he reworked this introduction into the symphonic poem, Les Préludes. Liszt marked the score with an extract from Alphonse de Lamartine’s collection of poems Nouvelles Méditations Poètiques. Both the orchestral score and this two piano version were published in 1856 at Leipzig. The progressive nature of Liszt’s symphonic poems did not sit comfortably with everyone and most notably the influential music critic Eduard Hanslick condemned Les Préludes.
I was impressed by the ability of Kanazawa and Admony to navigate the shifting moods of Les Préludes; a dramatic work so vibrant and declamatory. After the score’s early tenderness the music builds up to a wonderful excitement to end on a triumphant note.
From 1854-56 the symphonic poem Orpheus was originally written to serve as a prelude and epilogue to a production of Gluck’s opera Orpheus ed Eurydice that he was conducting in Weimar. Both the orchestral score and this two piano version were published in 1856. Lasting just under ten minutes Orpheus is the shortest score on the disc.
By comparison to Les Préludes the relatively restrained music of Orpheus presents a very different challenge to performers. Throughout this stream of music the duo’s concentration is outstanding. I just loved the Chopinesque elegance and tenderness of the opening section which displays the introspective side to Liszt’s character.
Liszt wrote the symphonic poem Mazeppa in 1855. It is an enlarged version of his splendid Transcendental Etude No. 4. The inspiration for the score is the gruesome, dramatic poem by Lord Byron and Victor Hugo where for punishment Mazeppa is strapped to a galloping horse that drags him across the Ukrainian plains. The orchestral version and this arrangement were published in Leipzig in 1857.
In Mazeppa the duo provide a fervent forward momentum. Their often breathless tempi combine satisfactorily with Liszt’s broad vacillation of mood. This is slow-burning music of turbulence and anguish. I was highly impressed with the duo’s uninhibited vivacity and the sparkling intensity of the performance.
Liszt’s twelfth symphonic poem Die Ideale was composed 1857-58. It is based mainly on a poem by dramatist Friedrich Schiller. Quotes from the poem are printed at various points during the score. Again the orchestral score and this two piano version were published in 1858. At twenty-four minutes in length it is the longest work on the disc.
Kanazawa and Admony display considerable energy throughout the gruelling physical demands of these arrangements none more so than in the lengthy Die Ideale. Here wave after wave of emotion develops into a tremendous climax to close the score.
It is good to have these symphonic poems available as Liszt intended in arrangements for the recital room as well as for the concert hall. However, without the broad palette of colour provided by the orchestra it is not surprising that these two piano arrangements can seem rather overlong. At certain times I was even reminded of pianists accompanying a 1920s silent film. This notwithstanding, there is much wonderful music to be enjoyed here. The impeccably prepared partnership perform these challenging scores marvellously and are well recorded too.