Liszt – From the Cradle to the Grave … Three Funeral Odes … Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust – BBCSSO/Volkov [Hyperion]

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Liszt
Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe
Trois Odes funèbres
Zwei Episoden aus Lenaus Faust

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Recorded 2-4 June 2010 in City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow


Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: March 2011
CD No: HYPERION CDA67856
Duration: 79 minutes

 

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2011 brings the bicentenary year of the birth of Franz Liszt, and with it the hope that his output is given the balanced appraisal that has been long overdue. Even in his 1968 biography of the composer, Alan Walker suggested that “of all the great nineteenth-century composers, Liszt alone still remains to be fully explored.” This position holds to the present day, in all but the most prominent works for piano.

There are signs, however, that the symphonic poems are creeping back into concert programmes, and there is one to open this Hyperion disc, which has as its principal attraction the Three Funeral Odes, completed between 1860 and 1866 in a variety of versions. The first two of these substantial pieces, ‘Les morts – Orison’ and ‘La notte’, are intensely personal works marking the passing of two of the composer’s children, a son, Daniel, at the age of twenty, and a daughter, Blandine, just after her birth. Clearly Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra have spent some time with this music, for they have the essence of its prolonged tension and underlying sorrow, the quieter music nonetheless bristling with the implication of events to come. When it does erupt, Liszt’s music can knock the listener sideways, as it does with the terrifically exciting ‘Te Deum’ that the full-toned male voices of the Glasgow Singers bring to ‘Les morts – Orison’. The legato string lines of ‘La notte’ are beautifully shaped, the tension again sustained, deliberately faltering in the approach to the final bars. The dark chords here, strongly anticipatory of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony, bring lower strings and woodwind to the fore. Ending the triptych on a more optimistic note is ‘The funeral triumph of Tasso’, intended by Liszt as something of a self-portrait. Free of the bombast commentators mistakenly attribute to much of the composer’s work, this is, as Leslie Howard points out in his excellent booklet note, “characterised by dignity and restraint.”

The disc begins, appropriately, with the curiously structured From the Cradle to the Grave. As with much of the music here there is immediate tension, released in the crisp ensemble of the strings, and complemented with a lovely clarinet solo that bespeaks of the “cradle of the life to come”, to which throaty lower strings offer a strong response. Hyperion’s recording, as throughout, is of commendable range, meaning this work in particular should be heard without aural distraction.

Continuing the themes of life and death, the final work is Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust, the curious and lengthy ‘The procession by night’ preceding the famous ‘The Dance in the Village Inn – First Mephisto Waltz’. The former piece is strongly atmospheric, reedy-wind and brass snarling in the distance in response to increasingly fraught lower string lines, before the procession itself proceeds with deliberate tread and a solemn climax is achieved. Tonality is something of a side-thought at the opposite ends of the piece, Liszt rejecting conventional harmonic progress, while the central section achieves an uncertain calm. All this builds the tension for the Waltz, and when it arrives Volkov resists the urge to go hell-for-leather, carefully accenting and defining the theme and its ornamentations.

Considering much of this music deals with death it possesses remarkable resolution and surprisingly uplifting qualities. Capping an outstanding release is a striking painting of Casper David Friedrich, the outlines of “Abbey in the Oakwood”, a stark observation on the music’s subject-matter, if not its emotional essence, which proves to be some of Liszt’s most accomplished writing for orchestra.

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