Sketches and drafts (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius randomly), revisions and cuts (the Bruckner, Rachmaninov problem), tell us a lot about the creative process. But they're rarely compelling performance/listening experiences. Beethoven's first thoughts (which, going back to the forties and fifties, Denis Matthews and Leonard Bernstein were among the first to illustrate in the studio) are not his final genius, and it's not just familiarity with the end result that tells us that. The blueprint of Sibelius's Fifth is not the final 1915 masterpiece.
Leslie Howard's Liszt edition – a monumental feat of perseverance, of which the present release, Rêves et fantaisies, is the hundredth initiative – began to hit our shelves in the late-eighties. Like Naxos's (multi-artist) Liszt project, it's never going to be the last word on the subject (how could it be) but as an édition intégrale, responsibly documented and bibliographically astute, it sets the bar high, a treasure-trove for dipping into and referencing forgotten byways.
The nineteen tracks here, “believed to be first recordings”, span Liszt's working life from Paris 1829 to Budapest 1885. The longest, by far, is the first, “parenthetically” the original late-1840s casting of the C-sharp minor First Hungarian Rhapsody but conceived on a broader, more indulgent scale – roughly twenty-two minutes against fourteen (fifteen-plus in Howard's hands). The “halfway-house” 1883 second draft of La lugubre gondola (1883) is useful to know. The strangely unfinished torso comprising the 1839 Maometto II fantasy (after Rossini's revised Venetian-Ottoman conflict opera premiered at La Fenice in 1822) promises what might have been a monumental counterpart to Liszt's other Italian reminiscences of the period.A succession of albumblätter, doodlings and harmonies at the keyboard flit by in a matter of seconds, with scarcely time to nod. One is puzzling – 'Dublin', jotted down on 22 December 1840. What is to be made of it? A tune caught on an echo down a lane off the Liffey, an aide memoire, the confiding of a trifling thought in a Tuesday room late at night in the Leinster Hotel, Charles Kean's Macbeth in the immediate memory? Howard, academically meticulous notes notwithstanding, ventures no clue. But is there a hint in the diary of Liszt's Welsh travelling companion, the harpist and actor John Orlando Parry? On the Twenty-Third, the day following, “applauded to the skies”, Liszt gave a concert programming the Hexameron and closing with a “truly extraordinary” improvisation on the waltz 'symphony' from Parry's popular new comedy song, Wanted, a Governess. Was 'Dublin', not dissimilar in mood and style, the wraith of an intro, a cue-sheet even? “I know not a cure so good for the vapours, as reading the 'wants' which appear in the papers.” Well, we can speculate…
Other curiosities include some discarded Mephisto Waltz pages which may have been intended to frame the original central section, of themselves oddly disorientating when you know the full bite and temper of the completed work. The “delightful unimportance” of the 1870 Kavallerie-Geschwindmarsch, and a suggestion of cognac overpowering the creative impulse, “a bad day at the office” – first draft of the Bülow-Marsch (1883) – glimpse Liszt the jobber, getting on but not staying.
The gem of the collection, beautifully sensitive, is the first version of the pedal-pointed Danse des sylphes from Berlioz's Faust, from a copyist's manuscript in Weimar prepared for publication, and with Liszt's autograph markings, but then dropped (it misses the introduction and coda of the definitive 1863 text). The ambience of the room and Ben Connellan's sympathetic engineering delicately suspend tone-painting and hour.
A few days before 'Dublin', Liszt and his party attended an 'entertainment' by the American showman Isaac A. Van Amburgh, whose travelling menagerie was quartered in Abbey Street. “His lions and tigers”, he reported, “are tired and stupefied. I was expecting something more impressive.” Gentler beauties aside, Howard's tentativeness, his lack of positivity in certain numbers, the bigger ones especially – feeling for the notes almost, reading rather than realising the score – is progressively the downside of this album. His chords are voiced and authoritatively weighted (they've always been a strength of his), but the runs and ornaments are too often lethargic and muted, the melodies and right-hand octaves more picked out than cantabile, the rests and pauses, the puissance fences, deliberated. He rarely seems to want to take off, to lend the music wing. Increased grip and tension, less of the safety net, a tang of primás reaction would not have gone amiss. When 'impressiveness' is wanted, it's de-energised.