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Steven J Haller
American Record Guide, July 2016

The New Zealand Symphony plays with assurance and vigor. Halász’s interpretation makes the many episodes hang together. © 2016 American Record Guide Read complete review on American Record Guide

Penguin Guide, January 2009

Michael Halász here offers three rarities, each with a valedictory theme. Hungaria, dating from 1856, was inspired by the Hungarian uprising of 1848, with a funeral march at its heart. Héroïde funèbre of 1848 was similarly inspired by the revolution in France, also in 1848, and again with funeral music, this time set against beautiful lyrical ideas and passing quotation from the Marseillaise. Le triomphe funèbre, shorter than the other two, is tauter, with greater use of chromatic ideas, but including a patriotic march before the final, somber funeral march. Halász draws committed performances from his orchestra, very well recorded.

Colin Clarke
MusicWeb International, April 2008

Hungaria, S109, begins darkly, ominously. Here is the spirit of pure Romanticism. The piece was begun in 1848 - the year of the Hungarian uprising against the Hapsburgs. A march with origins in an earlier piece, Heroic March in Hungarian Style, leads to an episodic section which includes some work for solo violin. 'Episodic' seems to sum up this work perfectly, in fact, but it works here chiefly because of the élan of the New Zealanders involved. The recording is very good without being demonstration quality. Nevertheless there is real detail there, and the thumping timpani-emphasised arrival at 12:35 makes its mark in no uncertain fashion. The descent into the depths - which reaches its stillest point around 15:30 - is particularly atmospheric. Avoidance of bombast, which enables the closing bars to sound triumphant, is symptomatic of the entire disc.

The Héroïde funèbre, S102 is actually the first movement of a projected ‘Revolutionary Symphony’ that was never to see completion. The funereal Lento lugubre introduction unites Beethoven's famous 'Eroica' funeral march with the nightmarish side of Berlioz. Liszt’s works hints of The Marseillaise into his fabric. The discipline of the New Zealand orchestra enables the long stretch of this piece to work.

Finally, the slightly shorter Tasse which is not to be confused with Tasso, the first version of this piece, which dates from 1849. There is much beauty here, and the phrasing from the New Zealand strings in particular is remarkably tender. ‘A Gondolier's Song’ is given central importance as regards thematic material, but what really matters is the elegiac mood, captured to perfection here.

Naxos seem to have some affinity with Liszt, for recently I welcomed the orchestrations of the Hungarian Rhapsodies (8.570230). I still enjoy the Masur traversals of the Liszt symphonic poems (currently available as a 7-CD set), but Halász provides a viable alternative.

American Record Guide, June 2007

With this welcome installment Michael Halasz doses out his survey of the Liszt tone poems for Naxos. It is a project that actually dates back to 1991 and the most familiar examples, Les Préludes, Tasso and Mazeppa plus Prometheus with the Polish National Radio Orchestra. That seemed to me rather pedestrian. With the second issue some seven years later (July/Aug 1998) I was impressed by the Hungarian-­born conductor's ability to hold the listener's interest in what must be accounted—save perhaps for Orpheus—considerably more rarified fare, Hamlet, From the Cradle to the Grave, and above all what may be Liszt's most discursive exercise in the genre, Die IdeaIe. By now it must have registered with everyone concerned that they might just have something here—not least for the exceptional playing of the newly recruited New Zealand Symphony and the sonorous environs—and a further revelation came with Volume 3 (Nov/Dec 2006) and Halasz's adroit handling of the Mountain Symphony, Liszt's first such essay, alongside Festklänge and the well-nigh conductor-proof spectacle Battle of the Huns.

There only remained the question of what to include with the two remaining tone poems, Hungaria and Heroide Funèbre, clearly not nearly enough to fill out a CD—and Halasz (or Naxos) has chosen wisely, in effect coming full circle with the epilogue to Tasso—heard way back on the first release.

While the Mountain Symphony, completed in 1857, need not relinquish its exalted status as the first of Liszt's completed symphonic poems, it was not his first serious attempt at orchestration. As far back as 1830 (he was only 18). inspired by the Paris uprising that sent Charles X into exile, he began feverishly sketching out a grand Revolutionary Symphony that would embody the patriotic sentiment of the times, even to the point of incorporating both ‘La Marseillaise’ and the Lutheran hymn ‘Ein’ Feste Burg’. But little came of it, and he set his sketches aside-though annotated with definite ideas for the instrumentation-until the renewed struggle for independence in 1848 spurred him to return to the projected symphony, now represented by a single movement (filled out by his amanuensis Raft) that would become his eighth symphonic poem, Heroide Funèbre. As it happens, the rebellion consumed not just France but also Hungary, where several of the leaders were summarily executed by the Austrians at Arad; and it is not difficult to posit, vide Andras Batta in his notes for the Hungaroton set, that despite echoes of ‘La Marseillaise’-no doubt carried over from the original sketches-Liszt's principal lament clearly is for those who fell in the bootless Hungarian War of Independence, evident at once from "the opening turn of the march subject" that serves as the underpinning for this harrowing imagery. It is a grand and wondrous marche Funèbre very much in the manner of Berlioz's Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale­ itself a much underrated masterwork-a stentorian cry of despair welling up in the trombone over the relentless tread of the thudding drums, dark colors of the lower winds and strings punctuated by massive strokes on chimes and gong. It is an emotionally draining juggernaut that will not be denied, with only fleeting balm midway through (the horn) that is finally stifled as the dirge wells up once more, the muffled drums fading into memory.

Comparison shows an astounding range of timings, from 17:32 for Kurt Masur (EM!) all the way to 27:02 for Bernard Haitink (Philips). with Halasz (23:19) and Arpad Joo on Hungaroton (24:04) in between. With no omissions that I could hear, Masur (Jan/Feb 1997) emphasizes the Héroïde part, and his vehement treatment is effective up to a point, yet finally seems unduly melodramatic. Haitink's dismal trudge strains credulity (not to mention the musical line) quite beyond endurance. Joo (Nov/Dec 1988) seems of similar mind with Halasz but cannot summon the sinew and determination to pull it off. It is a harrowing experience that you may not be able to sit still through very often; but when you feel the need to grieve, this is the one you'll want to listen to.

Hindsight is all; and if The Powers That Be had laid things out well in advance, I'm certain they would have followed Tasso with Le Triomphe Funèbre du Tasse, which it complements as epilogue-second thought-much as Berlioz insisted that the ramshackle Lélio be played in concert as denouement to the Syphonie Fantastique. For his second symphonic poem, Liszt took the subject of the tragic figure of Italian Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso, who won fleeting acclaim at the court of Ferrara, yet was imprisoned by his enemies in an insane asylum but finally given a martyr’s funeral after his death. According to Liszt’s biographer, Humphrey Searle, all of this struck a resonant chord in the composer. Certainly Liszt was lionized in his own time, yet we must recall Saint-Saens’s riposte that “the world calls him a great pianist in order to avoid acknowledging him as one of the great composers of our time”.

Many years later—not yet Abbé Liszt—he set down an epilogue to the tale in 1866, together with two other pieces, collectively titled Trois Odes Funèbres. In the final Ode Liszt returns to the story of Tasso, expanding on the Venetian motif from the earlier symphonic poem and contrasting that with a chromatic passage marked dolente e piangendo

Emotionally quite removed from the mournful imagery of these two pieces is Liszt’s sixth symphonic poem, Hungaria. Yet never far from the composer’s thoughts are the verses of Mihaly Vörösmarty that inspired this highly patriotic essay, tracing the fate of the Hungarian people from repression through the hard-fought struggle for independence, culminating in triumph—an apotheosis for full orchestra of the 19th century verbunkos and of Gypsy music. Searle affectionately speaks of it as a Hungarian Rhapsody on an extended scale, rich with tzigane writing for the solo violin and suffused with the very heart and soul of the Hungarian people. The premiere at the National Theater in Budapest in September 1856 was to remain for Liszt one of the greatest triumphs of his career; he never wanted to hear the pipece again, for no other performance could ever equal in his mind the memory of the glorious concert.

Of the numerous available recordings of Hungaria, the Ferencsik (July/August 2005) may be set aside for sizable cut midway in. The Melodiya with Mark Ermler (May/June 1992)—if you can find it—is an earnest effort but rather skims the surface in the opening pages. So does Masur and his penchant for break-neck tempos once again gets the better of him in agitated passages. (The fact that Masur’s timing is very close to the cut Ferencsik will give you some idea.) Haitink here gives one of the better readings in his set—now issued as a pair of Philips two-fers—but the closing march seems more pompous than triumphant, while Masur careens through it. Between Halasz and Joo there is little to choose; I might find a touch more urgency with Joo, but Halasz does very well with the music; and that taken together with his mastery of the other two pieces makes for an easy recommendation.

That also holds for Halasz’s survey as a whole—benefitting in no small way from the committed playing of the New Zealanders and the warm, full sound afforded by the recording venue. I won’t deny that I’d be happier still if Naxos encouraged Halasz to do the first installment over with the New Zealand Symphony before bringing out the inevitable box; but even as things stand, there’s no question this will be a tough set to beat at any price.

Classic FM, April 2007

If, like me, you've always thought that Liszt's symphonic poems aren't his (or anyone else's) best music, this disc will be quite a revelation. Héroïde funèbre, composed in memory of the Paris revolution of 1848, offsets its opening drumbeats with music of smouldering lyrical intensity. Much of Hungaria - a tribute to the anti-imperial uprising, also in 1848, in Liszt's native land - is in the same class, as is the memorial to Torquato Tasso, Le Triomphe funèbre du Tasse (an epilogue to Liszt's earlier orchestral portrait of the Italian poet). Michael Halasz secures antipodean orchestral playing that does these works real and excellent justice.

David Hurwitz, March 2007

If, like me, you've always thought that Liszt's symphonic poems aren't his (or anyone else's) best music, this disc will be quite a revelation. Héroïde funèbre, composed in memory of the Paris revolution of 1848, offsets its opening drumbeats with music of smouldering lyrical intensity. Much of Hungaria - a tribute to the anti-imperial uprising, also in 1848, in Liszt's native land - is in the same class, as is the memorial to Torquato Tasso, Le Triomphe funèbre du Tasse (an epilogue to Liszt's earlier orchestral portrait of the Italian poet). Michael Halasz secures antipodean orchestral playing that does these works real and excellent justice.

Michael Cookson
MusicWeb International, March 2007

This is volume 4 of the Naxos project to record all the symphonic poems of Franz Liszt. Fourteen of them have now been recorded and although we are not told as much this must be the final volume. The first three, also conducted by Halász, are available on Naxos 8.550487; 8.553355 and 8.557846.

Liszt was the composer primarily responsible for creating the genre of the symphonic poem. His single-movement orchestral works were written primarily in the 1840s and 1850s. In the symphonic poem the score is programmatic, developing material that is pictorial, literary or even based on an idea that suggests an emotion or scene in musical terms.

Liszt had first made sketches for his symphonic poem Hungaria in 1848 which was the year that the Hungarians rebelled against their Habsburg rulers. Some of the material in the score was taken from the earlier Heroic March in Hungarian Style for piano from 1840. The score Hungaria was completed in 1854 and first heard in 1856 in Pest with Liszt conducting.

Since the July revolution of 1830 in France, Liszt had been sketching out a Revolution Symphony; a score that was never completed. Material from the first movement was utilised and revised by Liszt using the title Héroïde funèbre. Described by biographer Humphrey Searle as, “a fine one-movement funeral march of vast proportions …” the score was first performed in Breslau in 1857.

Liszt had written the symphonic poem Tasso, lamento e trionfo in 1849 as a prelude to Goethe’s play Tasso. The score Le Triomphe funèbre du Tasse (The Funeral Triumph of Tasso) was composed by Liszt in 1866 to serve as an epilogue to Tasso, lamento e trionfo. Liszt utilised Le Triomphe funèbre du Tasse to serve as the final part to his Trois Odes Funèbres. The ‘funeral ode’ was dedicated to his Prussian friend Leopold Damrosch, conductor of the New York Philharmonic Society concerts, where the score was first performed in 1877.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra are in tremendous form here. Halasz’s readings have an impressive breadth and an intelligent sense of scale, tautly holding together the often inspiring orchestral playing. The pictorialism of these interpretations is strikingly graphic. Hungaria has containing a strong sense of nationalistic fervour with convincingly menacing, warlike episodes that evoke the horrors and carnage of the 1848-49 Hungarian uprisings. This patriotic struggle would have greatly affected Liszt at the time. I love the way that Halász, who I understand is himself Hungarian-born, brings the score home to a triumphantly optimistic conclusion.

In the darkly sombre Héroïde funèbre, maestro Halász emphasises the sinister and often terrifyingly character of this lengthy and dramatic funereal score. I was especially impressed with the superbly performed introduction to the Héroïde funèbre that convincingly sets the spine-chilling scene with terrifying, martial drum rolls and braying trombones.

What struck me as remarkable about this assured reading of Le Triomphe funèbre du Tasse was the richness of texture and the precision of ensemble of his New Zealand players of a standard approaching what one would expect from a Berlin or Vienna Orchestra. One cannot help but admire the way Halász gauges the yearning and brooding sections at 2:19-7:06 and 9:29-12:11 with an impressive dignity and unshakable restraint.

I am not able to recommend any suitable versions of Liszt’s Symphonic Poems from my own collection. However, a recording likely to be encountered is the five disc set of Franz Liszt: Works for Orchestra performed by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Kurt Masur on EMI Classics 5745212. Another alternative that has been 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 and also on Brilliant Classics.

The sonics are crisp and cleanly recorded, and Keith Anderson’s booklet notes are to the usual high standard. This Naxos series has gone from strength to strength.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2007

They have saved the best to the last, this final instalment of Halasz's cycle of the thirteen Liszt symphonic poems finding both the orchestra and conductor in inspired form. Composed through much of his mature career, they were all in the shape of graphic musical pictures, and as was his wont he painted them in a vast range of orchestral colours. Here Halasz can enjoy the wide dynamic range that the New Zealand Symphony has on offer, from the melancholy that opens Hungaria to the heroic gestures of defiance in the Heroide funebre. Tempos are unhurried, a fact that is to the music's benefit, those moments of silence only adding to the atmosphere Liszt was seeking. Yet the quality of an orchestra can usually be measured in their playing of quiet passages, the New Zealand players offering a spread of nuances in the sombre passages of Le Triomphe funebre du Tasse, a score reflecting the epilogue to Byron's epic poem on the life of Tasso. The sound quality is remarkable in its extraordinary detail and internal balance. A jewel in Naxos's catalogue.  

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