March 28, 2019


Liszt: Symphonic Poems Nos. 1-12. Leslie Howard and Mattia Ometto, pianos. Brilliant Classics. $14.99 (3 CDs).

Smetana: Richard III, symphonic poem after Shakespeare; Wallenstein’s Camp, symphonic poem after Schiller; Hakon Jarl, symphonic poem after Oehlenschläger; Festive Symphony—Scherzo. Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leoš Svárovský. Naxos. $12.99.

Liszt: Études d’execution transcendante. Andrey Gugnin, piano. Piano Classics. $20.99.

Cécile Chaminade: Piano Music. Mark Viner, piano. Piano Classics. $20.99.

     The importance of Franz Liszt in 19th-century music, and indeed in 19th-century society in general, can scarcely be overestimated. One of the earliest and most prominent members of what would later become a cult of celebrity – but with the difference that Liszt, unlike many later celebrities including virtually all of them today, actually had accomplishments beyond being famous – Liszt was a magnificent contradiction in terms: sincerely religious and eventually taking minor orders, but involved in multiple high-profile affairs; deeply dedicated to Hungarian independence but primarily speaking German; and more. Musically, he was extremely superficial and very deep, not quite at the same time: his earlier works, meant for his own performance, were as popular in orientation as could be, while his later ones looked ahead to the eventual deterioration and even destruction of tonality. There was no clear dividing line in Liszt’s music – unlike Beethoven, he is not said to have early, middle and late periods. Liszt was gregarious, forthcoming with help for many other composers, and important to the music of his time and well beyond. And he was constantly pushing boundaries, as in his 13 symphonic poems. This is a form that Liszt invented, an expansion of the concept of a concert overture into something larger, longer, more symphonic in structure, and altogether grander – and often more grandiose. Few of the symphonic poems are performed regularly by orchestras – the exception is the one Liszt placed third in the cycle, Les préludes – and the works are almost never heard in Liszt’s second version of them, which is for two pianos. (A third version, for solo piano, was done by Liszt’s students.) This makes the new Brilliant Classics release featuring Leslie Howard and Mattia Ometto a major event: it includes all 12 symphonic poems from the 1850s. (The 13th, Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe or “From the Cradle to the Grave,” dates to 1883; Liszt did not create a two-piano version of it.) The performances, as is to be expected from anything Lisztian done by Howard, are brilliant, knowing, tremendously skillfully presented, deeply involving from beginning to end, and if not definitive are about as close to it as anything is likely to be. As with other piano arrangements that Liszt made – notably those of Beethoven’s symphonies – these are not note-by-note transcriptions: although relatively few people know the symphonic poems, those who do will perceive differences (some minor, some fairly significant) between the orchestral versions and these. They are matters of emphasis and of adaptation, changes made out of necessity (in places where the orchestral versions require untuned percussion) or out of structural concern (as in Hungaria, No. 9, where Liszt actually adds new music to produce the two-piano version). What really matters, though, is not direct comparisons between the symphonic and two-piano versions of these broadly conceived, emotionally trenchant works. What matters is whether they work as well in both formats. The answer is that they most decidedly do when the playing is as amazingly intense and sensitive as it is throughout this three-CD set. Howard and Ometto scale the pianistic heights without seeming effort, their technique so refined that it recedes aurally into the background and allows listeners to hear and absorb the many beauties of these pieces and their communicative elegance. The transcendence of No. 2, Tasso – Lamento e Trionfo, is beautifully communicated. The fugal material in No. 5, Prometheus, is elegantly on display. The blend of Polish and Hungarian elements is very clearly delineated in No. 7, Festklänge. The unusually forward-looking Hamlet, placed as No. 10 in the sequence by Liszt even though it was the last of the 12 to be written, here seems both complete in itself and a prologue to Liszt’s later music. One of the things that comes through most clearly in this recording, remarkably so, is how well Liszt chose the order of the Symphonic Poems. They represent a gigantic cycle – three and three-quarter hours of music! – that feels as if it makes complete sense in the Howard/Ometto recording, even if the precise way in which it makes sense remains elusive. These works have long been undervalued and, in their two-piano version, almost completely unknown. This remarkable recording, by making them available so readily and at such an amazingly low price, gives all great-music lovers a perfect chance to evaluate (or re-evaluate) Liszt’s work and give it more of the adulation that it most assuredly deserves.

     The number of composers influenced by Liszt’s symphonic poems is a large one. Tchaikovsky’s work certainly owes much to Liszt, as does Wagner’s, as does Dvořák’s – Dvořák even created a symphonic-poem cycle in Nature, Life and Love (consisting of In Nature’s Realm, Carnival and Othello.) An even grander cycle is Smetana’s Má vlast, which is directly traceable to Liszt, whom Smetana knew and whose musical and business advice he sought – which, with typical generosity, Liszt provided. The two men had a good deal in common, including the fact that both of them primarily spoke German despite feelings of allegiance to Habsburg-ruled nations other than Germany. It is unsurprising that the six symphonic poems of Má vlast were not Smetana’s only ones in the genre. A new Naxos CD featuring the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra under Leoš Svárovský provides a welcome chance to explore other Smetana works in this form and examine the Liszt influence in new ways. Má vlast is very late Smetana, dating to 1874-79, but the works heard on this CD are earlier, and each is self-contained. Richard III dates to 1858 and depicts in musical terms the doom-laden scene before the Battle of Bosworth in which the king is haunted by the ghosts of his many victims. Smetana creates an effective portrayal, combining the expected martial elements with some distinctive touches, such as a reflective passage using muted lower strings. Wallenstein’s Camp (1859) also includes effective if rather obvious scene-painting, as when the army is asleep and then is roused by a trumpet to a final march – but here too, Smetana picks up some refined Liszt-like touches of orchestration, in a section where the scene of a street preacher mocked by the crowd is told through three trombones and tuba. Hakon Jarl (1861) features an attractive harp cadenza in a work that effectively mixes martial and religious themes. As an encore, Svárovský and the orchestra perform the scherzo from Smetana’s Festive Symphony, which was something of an occasional piece – written amid nationalist fervor in 1854, after the marriage of Emperor Franz Joseph I to Elisabeth of Bavaria. Three of the symphony’s four movements contain the old Imperial anthem, music written by Haydn but with many unfortunate associations in later years (including with the Nazis in the 20th century). Only the symphony’s third movement lacks references to Haydn’s tune, and Smetana himself conducted it as a standalone piece, as did others. In isolation, it is a well-made but not especially unusual work, of less interest than the symphonic poems on the disc but perfectly fine as a kind of musical dessert.

     It is worth noting that Liszt not only influenced many other composers – and pianists – but also influenced himself in intriguing ways. Handel was a master of self-borrowing, but Liszt took this idea, as he took so much else, into new areas. Notably, in Liszt’s Transcendental Études, the fourth piece, an Allegro in D minor, bears the title Mazeppa, and is in fact the music that the composer later reworked into the symphonic poem of the same name (No. 6). The symphonic poem has a more-extended and more-triumphant coda than the piano work, and is expanded to twice the length, but the scene-painting and much of the music used to tell and comment on the story are the same. Liszt may have stopped concertizing professional at age 37 (in the stormy year of 1848), but he remained renowned as a pianist throughout his life and always produced piano music packed with challenges and innovations. A new Piano Classics CD featuring Andrey Gugnin in the 12 Transcendental Études certainly shows Liszt’s pianistic prowess – and Gugnin’s – to very fine effect. The Transcendental Études are a rite of passage for all young piano virtuosi, and certainly Gugnin gets the showy elements right, as in the rapid double-note passages of Feux Follets and the arpeggios and tremolos of Vision. But Gugnin also handles the subtle elements of the études convincingly and with care: the long-drawn-out melody of Ricordanza, for instance, and the calm impressionism of Harmonies du soir. This is a sensitive and thoughtful performance that accepts and conquers the technical demands of the music while looking beyond them to the études’ emotional underpinnings, showing them to be – in addition to study pieces, in addition to virtuoso display works – a kind of glorified and expanded salon music, perhaps not deep but undeniably attractive.

     A similar description fits the piano music of Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944), who was surely aware of Liszt’s reputation and his approach to piano writing – and who once played some of her own early works for Bizet – but who generally chose to produce pleasantries rather than try to scale the emotional and technical heights where the older composer/pianist dwelled. Mark Viner, whose pianism is certainly equal to Liszt’s demands, finds a great deal worthy of exploration in Chaminade’s music on a new Piano Classics CD that contains three suites and five miniatures. Actually, everything here is a miniature, since the suites’ movements are themselves short: Chaminade shows the reverse side of the coin on whose obverse are Liszt’s very extended and highly symphonic tone paintings. Instead of Transcendental Études, Chaminade wrote six Études de concert that certainly contain some technical challenges – such as the nearly-nonstop double notes of the opening Scherzo – but that are mainly memorable for their delicacy and pleasurable sound, notably in the poetic Automne. (Chaminade was also, like Liszt, quite willing to borrow from herself: she used the fourth of these pieces, Appassionato, as a sonata finale.) There is prettiness as well in the four pieces of Poème provençal, with introversion (if not deep introspection) especially evident in Solitude and Le Passé. The third suite on this disc, 6 Romances sans paroles, takes after Mendelssohn more than Liszt and also shows Chaminade’s strength in music whose worth lies in its acceptance of the value of prettiness without striving for  a deeper beauty. Idylle and Méditation are especially indicative of Chaminade’s approach, although it would be a mistake to consider this composer entirely one-dimensional, as the boldness of Chanson Brétonne shows. The individual pieces that Viner offers all have pleasures of their own: Pierette, air de ballet; Les Sylvains; Arabesque; La Lisonjera; and Thème varié, which – despite its title – is not a set of variations but an exploration of two similar themes that are attractively juxtaposed and treated with more virtuosity than is the norm in Chaminade’s music. Unlike Liszt’s piano music, Chaminade’s is often aimed at talented amateurs; and if Liszt’s stage was the world (or at least all of Europe), Chaminade was more comfortable with the Parisian drawing-room scene. But there was and is room for both Liszt and Chaminade in pianists’ repertoire, the two composers’ contrasts providing artists such as Gugnin and Viner with ample opportunity to showcase their technical prowess as well as their ability to use the piano in the way Liszt intended, as an orchestra in miniature.

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