December 24, 2009


Liszt: Organ Works (complete). Martin Haselböck, organ. NCA. $129.99 (5 SACDs + DVD).

Idil Biret Concerto Edition, Volume 4: Liszt—Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Totentanz. Idil Biret, piano; Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Emil Tabakov. IBA. $8.99.

Bach: Concertos for Solo Harpsichord (complete); Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 894. Elizabeth Farr, harpsichord. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     Although Martin Haselböck’s superb recordings of Liszt’s organ works are available as individual SACDs, they are even better in the newly released complete set – not because the performances themselves are better (they are the same) but because the comprehensive survey of this highly important organ repertoire makes more sense, and possesses more cogency, when heard as a whole. Furthermore, Haselböck’s 45-minute discussion of Liszt’s organ music, on an included DVD, is more coherent and revelatory than the notes he wrote for each of the individual SACDs: those commentaries (which are included in this set in an oversize booklet) tend to get so bogged down in technical and historical details that non-specialists may find them daunting, or at least uninteresting. But no one interested in organ music – or in Liszt – will find Haselböck’s performances less than enthralling. He takes the full measure of some works that are central to the organ repertoire, Liszt having been almost singlehandedly responsible for changing the organ from an instrument for church music only into one that could, in addition to sacred works, be used for extensive secular pieces of style, elegance and virtuosity. On the sacred side stand such outstanding long-form pieces as Requiem (1868-83) and Missa pro Organo (1879), as well as chorales and laments and some rather spare and emotionally desiccated works of Liszt’s later years. On the secular side are works based on Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète and Wagner’s Tannhäuser (operas with religious themes but not ones of religion per se); an expansion of parts of Liszt’s own Dante Symphony; and a number of works based on ones by Bach – whose influence loomed large over all Liszt’s organ music. Haselböck’s playing is by turns sensitive, dramatic, controlled, anguished, light-fingered and brilliantly sonorous, as he takes the full measure of each of these pieces while placing them in a context that he explains with care and intelligence on the included DVD. This is scarcely an inexpensive set – although, with the individual SACDs priced at $24.99, it costs little more than the five of them put together – but it is an absolutely crucial one for anyone interested in organ music beyond Bach, and in Liszt’s music beyond virtuosic display and brilliantly nationalistic set pieces. It is, in short, a major achievement, with absolutely top-notch performances of music that, for all its importance, is too rarely heard and has never before been given such a fully realized and thoroughly thoughtful rendition.

     The more familiar side of Liszt is on display – and “display” is the right word – in the latest Idil Biret Concerto Edition release, which features the two piano concertos and the Totentanz. This is music that requires a combination of careful control (to keep it from spinning away from the soloist) and high-level virtuosity. Biret brings her usual thoughtfulness to it, and if occasionally a listener may wish for a bit more abandon (or seeming abandon), in the main these performances are as intense and strongly declaimed as one could wish. Biret favors comparatively slow tempos that bring out many nuances that can be lost at the breakneck pace used by some pianists. Her approach takes some getting used to but is completely convincing in context. And she has plenty of power when it is needed – in the final Allegro marziale animato section of Concerto No. 1, for example. She has the showpiece Totentanz well in hand, too, giving it a seriousness and intensity that it does not always receive from performers who seem to think of it as a kind of extended encore (very extended: Biret’s performance lasts almost 18 minutes). The Bilkent Symphony Orchestra under Emil Tabakov keeps up with Biret and is certainly responsive enough, but it is not really a world-class ensemble, and tends to sound a bit thin and stressed from time to time. Nevertheless, these 2004 performances of the concertos – and the 2007 rendition of Totentanz – are fine showcases for Biret’s art.

     But back to Bach’s influence on Liszt: it is absolutely fascinating to juxtapose Liszt’s works for solo organ with Bach’s Concertos for Solo Harpsichord. Their title means what it says: these pieces are in concerto form but are for solo harpsichord, not harpsichord and strings. There are 16 of these works in all, running a total of more than two-and-a-half hours, and they are not to be listened to all at once – the essentially monochromatic sound of the harpsichord (even one whose registrations are managed as skillfully as Elizabeth Farr does in this recording) makes them hard to take in huge doses. But of course they were not intended to be played or heard that way. These are Bach’s transcriptions of work by Vivaldi, Torelli and Telemann; less-known composers including Johann Ernst and brothers Alessandro and Benedetto Marcello; and composers whose identity is unknown. Like Liszt in his opera transcriptions many years later, Bach made these concerto transcriptions with care and close attention to detail, possibly for his own study. They are early Bach works, from his Weimar period, and are certainly not designed for virtuosic display, although they require a considerable amount of skillful playing – notably in fugal movements. Farr is an intelligent and committed interpreter of this music, performing it with grandeur (aided by the use of a two-manual harpsichord with 16’ sound) and considerable sensitivity. And the A minor Prelude and Fugue makes a fine encore to the concerto set. Even if these particular transcriptions did not directly influence Liszt – although perhaps they did – they are excellent examples of the way one composer learns from others through adaptation, alteration and updating. As Bach did with Vivaldi and others, so Liszt later did with Bach. Different time, different keyboard, but the compositional impulse remains much the same – and every bit as strong.

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