Steven J Haller
American Record Guide
, July 2011
LISZT, F.: Orchestral Pieces - Hungarian Rhapsodies / Dante Symphony / Symphonic Poems (Korodi, Haenchen, Ferencsik, Nemeth) C7090
LISZT, F.: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Fantasies (Jando, Budapest Symphony, A. Ligeti) C7095
Capriccio has taken the 5-CD Liszt set they brought out a few years ago (July/Aug 2005), added more music, and split everything into two sets. But they haven’t added that much more music; and since most stores don’t take trade-ins, anyone who bought the earlier set may well ask what’s new here. The short answer: not much, but I found a couple pieces worth keeping.
Three out of the five discs in the original set were orchestral, and the standout remains Hartmut Haenchen’s intense and richly conceived Dante Symphony, which comes very close to matching Barenboim for sheer massive force in the opening ‘Inferno’—not least the almost brutal low brass—and yet the elegiac ‘Purgatorio’ and ethereal ‘Magnificat’ are absolutely sublime, with the women’s chorus at the close as if from on high. Certainly I’d set Haenchen’s superb performance well above either of the new recordings discussed above.
But the real treat is the first recording ever that I know of, of Liszt’s own transcription of A la Chapelle Sixtine—originally written for organ—that combines two sources, a paraphrase of Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere (itself oddly suggestive of the slow movement from the Beethoven Seventh) and the more familiar Ave Verum Corpus of Mozart, later used by Tchaikovsky in Mozartiana. Sometimes darkly chromatic, sometimes almost approaching chamber music, this is a beautiful piece you’ll want to have in your collection. But Capriccio has also issued these two pieces on a single disc, 10736.
This is at least the third time around for the Hungarian Rhapsodies from Andras Korodi and the Budapest Symphony—I first reviewed them in March/April 1990. My opinion hasn’t really changed that much. Korodi gets some expressive playing out of his men, but nothing approaching the electricity of Dorati with the London Symphony (Mercury; Sept/Oct 1991) or Ivan Fischer’s highly imaginative Philips survey (Mar/Apr 1999). Korodi’s dreary treatment of 2 is a particular disappointment, while the all-important cymbalom in 3 is all but buried. You can do better.
I felt you could do better than Janos Ferencsik’s Les Preludes too, but I like it a lot more than the sodden Ahronovitch substituted here. Ferencsik wasn’t big on excitement either, but he worked it up more than Ahronovitch and he had a better ear for color too. But Ferencsik’s Tasso and Hungaria are well worth having. Tasso never descends into bathos like some conductors in its opening pages that tell of the poet’s despair, while Liszt’s miraculous transformation of that somber imagery into the ecstatic peroration depicting Tasso’s triumphant return to Rome has a grand swagger under Ferencsik that few others can match. Hungaria is not the heavily cut Westminster LP but a later performance that can stand with the best. (Capriccio gives it a timing of 16:38 rather than 21:28 as registered by my CD player.) In this piece Liszt pays homage to the patriots who fought the good fight for independence— an apotheosis of the 19th Century verbunkos and Gypsy music—and you can hear all the yearning, the intense pride of the Hungarian people. Only Hungarian conductors apparently—Halasz, Joo, Ferencsik—really get this music.
Orpheus with its quavery violin solo is way below Beecham’s level, but the one new piece—Mazeppa—is so good I’m surprised Hungaroton never issued it before that I could find. The opening pages especially sound like they were recorded in an echo chamber, and Ferencsik takes a while to get going; but once he hits his stride he’s hard to beat, with powerful support from the trombones. The urgent and bracing march (with repeat) that celebrates Mazeppa’s triumph as leader of the Ukrainian Cossacks is one of the reasons I’m hanging onto this set.
The new material on the fourth disc includes two versions of the Rakoczy March— the original piano setting as the 15th Hungarian Rhapsody, set down in determined fashion by Jeno Jando, and Liszt’s orchestration here lasting twice as long (there’s a reason you hear the Berlioz way more often) courtesy of Gyula Nemeth. He seems weary next to Fiedler, but then Fiedler didn’t play the whole thing.
The big news here is the march Liszt wrote in 1849 for the Weimar centennial of Goethe’s birth, though he rewrote it 10 years later; there’s nothing about it in the paltry notes so I’m guessing this is the later version. I defy you to sit through this piece without thinking of the march from Sibelius’s Karelia Suite. It’s an upbeat processional that wears its chromatic mantle lightly. But Ferencsik also recorded Liszt’s Hungarian Battle March for Hungaroton— you may know it as Hungarian Storm March—and that could certainly have been included here.
The keyboard portion of the original set has been expanded from two discs to three, and as before the strong selling point is not the concertos but the fantasies that are encountered on disc far less often—and in the concert hall (I’m sorry to say) hardly ever. But it must be said straight off that the Grande Fantaisie Symphonique on Themes from Berlioz’s Lélio remains a curio at best; in fact it’s just as rambling and garrulous as its source. Fortunately Liszt sticks to the high points: the bittersweet yearning of Goethe’s ballad ‘Le Pecheur’ (The Fisherman) and—best of all—the swaggering ‘Song of the Brigands’ that reminds us of Berlioz’s great admiration for Byron’s Corsaire and of course the lusty closeout of Harold in Italy. But Liszt’s fisherman outstays his welcome by half and it takes some really compelling pianism to hold it all together. This Jeno Jando does handsomely, though he has stiff competition from Louis Lortie (Chandos; July/Aug 2000) and Michel Beroff (EMI). I actually prefer Jando’s more robust ‘Brigands’ Song’ to Lortie. But the real treat—I can’t understand why it isn’t played in concert more often—is the effervescent Fantasy on Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens where Liszt skillfully juggles one theme from the overture, the exhilarating ‘Chorus of Dervishes’, and the familiar ‘Turkish March’. Here both Jando and Lortie are more inclined to linger than Beroff, and as with Lélio all three gentlemen are far preferable to the tedious Hyperion set with Leslie Howard (March/April 1999).
Whatever Schubert might have thought of Liszt’s effusive setting of the Wanderer—did he ever have a chance to hear it, I wonder?—I find it a warm-hearted and affectionate homage that’s actually quite faithful to the original, filling out the nooks and crannies with wind and string color without in any way diluting the virtuoso challenge set before the soloist—including Schubert himself, who reportedly broke off at one point in the finale, crying “The devil may play it!” Certainly Jando is equal to the task; and that applies in spades to his wonderfully bracing Hungarian Fantasy—he may not reap the whirlwind with quite the phenomenal éclat of Earl Wild with the Florida Philharmonic (Ivory; Jan/Feb 2010), but you won’t go away disappointed.
I do wish some of that supercharged energy had spilled over into the concertos; but these are highly enjoyable just the same, if lacking the fanciful quality of Richter and Kondrashin on Philips or the virtuosic fireworks of Byron Janis and his Russian colleagues for Mercury (recently reissued by Newton). He piles into Totentanz with a will, but the engineers have let us down by all but burying the hunting horns at 11:28. (Capriccio gets this timing wrong too: it’s 15:42, not 19:42.) New to the set—though it came out before on LaserLight—is Malédiction, where Jando handily belies the “curse” of the title with a wonderfully buoyant reading, supported admirably by the Budapest strings (no winds or brass; you won’t miss them either). Jando’s exhilarating Polonaise Brillante (after Weber) is worth having too; and I can understand why Capriccio decided to complement it with Liszt’s Fantasy on Der Freischütz (for solo piano), but without it everything else could have fit quite nicely on two CDs.
Even with some reservations about the Hungarian Rhapsodies this remains an easily accessible and relatively inexpensive introduction to the music of Franz Liszt…