Saturday, March 19, 2011

Liszt's symphonic poems

Between 1986 and 1999 I built up a considerable collection of classical music CD's (exceeding 2000 CD's in total). For various reasons I have played them a lot less in the past decade, but I am embarking on a rediscovery tour that I intend to share in this blog. In the twelfth installment, I re-examine the symphonic poems of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886), the inventor of this particular genre, even though I tend to prefer later composers in this respect (such as Bax, Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Dvorak, Smetana and Respighi). As so often with composers from the classical or romantic era, the numbering is not in line with the sequence of creation - I have opted for the latter.

No. 1 Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne (S.95, 1848-1854)
My version: Budapest Symphony Orchestra/Joo (Brilliant Classics [Hungaroton], 1985, 30 min)
This "Mountain symphony" was inspired by a Victor Hugo poem. Liszt sets out to depict the struggle between man and nature - a more philosophical approach of the mountain theme than Richard Strauss' Alpensinfonie of several decades later. It has its moments, especially in the solo part for violin, but for the material it offers, it is far too long, especially the bombastic finish.

No. 3 Les preludes (1848)
My version: Budapest Symphony Orchestra/Joo (Brilliant Classics [Hungaroton], 1985, 16 min)
My version: Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig/Masur (EMI, 1981, 15 min)
Liszt' most famous composition for orchestra probably. It is based on an ode by Alphonse de Lamartine, depicting life as a prelude for better things to come. Right from the subdued start, everything comes together in this composition: gorgeous melodies, including the immortal main theme, wonderful orchestration (a rarity in his repertoire) and an almost operatic Wagnerian feeling.  Liszt's best work by far to my taste, and almost getting my "hors concours" stamp of approval,

No. 2 Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo (1849-1854)
My version: Budapest Symphony Orchestra/Joo (Brilliant Classics [Hungaroton], 1985, 22 min)
My version: Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig/Masur (EMI, 1981, 21 min)
The Goethe and Byron poems on Tasso, an Italian poet, provided the literary inspiration, a Venice gondola song the musical one.It depicts the life of Tasso, including the problem years (the slow Lamento part), a happy minuet, and the triumphant conclusion (the fast Trionfo part). It is a wonderful melodic work, with rich contrasts of mood, great instrumentation, and one of his best efforts in the genre.  

No. 5 Prometheus (S.99, 1850-1855)
My version: Budapest Symphony Orchestra/Joo (Brilliant Classics [Hungaroton], 1985, 13 min)
Inspired by the Greek legend of Prometheus, this tone poem (with clear orchestration support by Raff) illustrates the imprisonment, pain, hope, and the final triumph of the main character. Right from the dramatic start, heroic themes dominate, with some great melodic interludes. However, there is a sense of discontinuity about the composition, and one can see why it is generally not regarded as one of his best.

No. 8 Heroide funebre (1849–50)
My version: Budapest Symphony Orchestra/Joo (Brilliant Classics [Hungaroton], 1985, 24 min)
This tone poem is based on the first movement of the unfinished Revolutionary Symphony of 1830. Grief is the main theme of this triple funeral march, inspired by Hungary losing the battle of independence. The continuous pessimistic atmosphere, coupled with rather straightforward instrumentation, and its excessive length, explains the lack of appeal this composition has encountered through the centuries. It does have its grander moments, but they are few and far apart.

No. 6 Mazeppa (S.100, 1851)
My version: Budapest Symphony Orchestra/Joo (Brilliant Classics [Hungaroton], 1985, 16 min)
My version: Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig/Masur (EMI, 1981, 16 min)
One of the popular romantic tales of the time, which inspired poems by Byron and Hugo, is the story of Ivan Mazeppa, Polish nobleman who suffered defeat, humiliation and subsequent rise to become chief of the cossacks. The tone poem focuses on his punishment, bound to a wild horse, and chased into the steppe, all the way to the Ukraine, and his rescue. Bombast is always lurking beneath (and sometimes above) the surface, but it is still a good piece, and one of his better tone poems.

No. 7 Festklaenge (1853)
My version: Budapest Symphony Orchestra/Joo (Brilliant Classics [Hungaroton], 1985, 20 min)
Festklaenge (Festive sounds) is basically an extended wedding march for a wedding that was never to be: the one between Liszt and his long-time partner and muse, Princess Carolyne of Wittgenstein. The most remarkable feature of the composition is the use of themes from Polish and Hungarian dances, representing the princess and Liszt. It has its beautiful moments, but it does outstay its welcome somewhat at the rather excessive length.

No. 4 Orpheus (S.98, 1853–4)
My version: Budapest Symphony Orchestra/Joo (Brilliant Classics [Hungaroton], 1985, 11 min)
My version: Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig/Masur (EMI, 1981, 10 min)
This tone poem was inspired by an Etruscan vase at the Louvre showing the mythological Orpheus singing and playing his lyre, taming the wild animals around him. It is a unique work in liszt's oeuvre: no struggle, no contrast, just a tonal stream of beautiful melody and harmony, yet firmly romantic in its approach. The doubled harp is effectively chosen to represent Orpheus' lute. One of his very best.

No. 9 Hungaria (1854)
My version: Budapest Symphony Orchestra/Joo (Brilliant Classics [Hungaroton], 1985, 22 min)
In spirit and form, this is in fact an extended Hungarian rhapsody, inspired by the struggle of the Hungarian people, but focusing on hope and joy as well, rather than just despair, which characterized the earlier Heroide Funebre. Even without a clear programme, the changes in moods, pace and rhythms captivate the listener's attention. One of his better efforts in the genre.

No. 11 Hunnenschlacht [Battle of the Huns](S.105, 1856–7)
My version: Budapest Symphony Orchestra/Joo (Brilliant Classics [Hungaroton], 1985, 14 min)
Inspired by the Kaulbach painting of the same name, depicting a battle so ferocious that the souls of the dead warriors continued their fighting in the sky as they rose to Heaven. The first nine minutes consist of ghostly fanfares and nervous strings to evoke the battle, with subdued organ lines representing the Christian fighters. Then a gorgeous melody finally enfolds, leading to an intense climax supported by organ. Generally seen by classical music experts as one of the best of his symphonic poems, and it is hard to argue with that.

No. 12 Die Ideale [The ideals] (S.106, 1857)
My version: Budapest Symphony Orchestra/Joo (Brilliant Classics [Hungaroton], 1985, 27 min)
Based on Schiller's poem of the same name, this work was originally intended to be a three-movement symphony. There is no obvious programme to this work which is meant to evoke the philosophical struggle that is at the heart of the poem. Musically, one can distinguish the typical symphonic movements, including and adagio and a scherzo in the middle. Maybe not a very good tone poem, but certainly a good orchestral composition, although its length and the lack of really memorable melodic lines stop it from getting higher praise from me than "Good to have".

No. 10 Hamlet, after the drama by Shakespeare (1858)
My version: Budapest Symphony Orchestra/Joo (Brilliant Classics [Hungaroton], 1985, 15 min)
Liszt had to wait almost 30 years after finishing this composition before he actually heard it performed - which says a lot about its reception at the time. Also in later years, it has failed to become a staple of the orchestral repertoire, although it is a decent if not brilliant piece of work. Liszt tried to capture the character and mood of Hamlet, rather than his actions: indecisive, grotesque, manic. In the end though it lacks memorable themes, making it one of the "also-rans" in this part of Liszt's output.

No. 13 Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (From the Cradle to the Grave) (S.107, 1881–2)
My version: Budapest Symphony Orchestra/Joo (Brilliant Classics [Hungaroton], 1985, 17 min)
More than decades after his 12th numbered symphonic poem, Liszt composed his 13th and final one. It was inspired by a drawing made by Mihaly Zichy, sent to Liszt, depicting both a cradle and a coffin. Liszt turned this into a three movement symphonic poem. The first part depicts the cradle, in a beautiful serene and fragile andante, uniquely scored for violin, viola, harp and flute only. The second part depicts a struggle for existence, at times violent, at times resigned, with a richer orchestral palette than in most of his compositions. The final part depicts the grave, described by Liszt as the cradle of future life, a slow and solemn piece ending in a prolonged high cello note that depicts death and transfiguration far more movingly than Richard Strauss would do a few years later. My personal second favourite of all of Liszt's oeuvre.

Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste:

Hors concours: 
Essential: Les preludes, Tasso (lamento e trionfo), Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe
Important: Hungaria, Hunnenschlacht, Orpheus
Good to have: Die Ideale, Mazeppa
Not required: Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne, Festklaenge, Hamlet, Heroide funebre, Prometheus