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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Franz Liszt - Symphonic Poems Vol. 1 (Bernard Haitink)


Composer: Franz Liszt

  1. Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne, S. 95 (after Hugo)
  2. Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo, S. 96 (after Byron)
  3. Les Préludes, S. 97 (after Lamartine)
  1. Orpheus, S. 98
  2. Prometheus, S. 99
  3. Mazeppa, S. 100 (after Hugo)
  4. Festklänge, S. 101

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Bernard Haitink, conductor
Date: 1968-1971
Label: Philips



Now here's some vivid sound-track material for the imagination's invisible screen: wild, windswept essays, innovative in the extreme, with heartrending lyrical interludes and great tunes galore. No wonder Saint-Saëns, when referring to Liszt's orchestral works, spoke of the master "whom the world calls a great pianist in order to avoid acknowledging him as one of the great composers of our time". The 12 'numbered' symphonic poems date from Liszt's rich maturity (the first, Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne, was composed during the late 1840s) with the lean, near-expressionist Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe ("From the Cradle to the Grave") following on after a period of some 25 years. Initial orchestration was invariably under taken by Joachim Raff, although the composer himself always had the final say. Liszt also wrote detailed programmes, or reproduced poems in his scores, so that in the case of, say, Die Ideate, individual stanzas are related to specific musical episodes. And then there is the strange case of Orpheus, which was originally intended as a prelude to the Weimar premiere of Gluck's opera; Liszt even composed some 'closing' music on the same themes. But he was extremely pragmatic in his approach to interpretation: "I have tried to show my intentions with regard to nuances, accelerandi, ritardandi, etc., as sensitively as possible by a detailed use of the normal signs and marks of expression", he wrote in the full score to the epic, highly variegated Ce quon entendsur la ,nontagne ("What one hears in the mountains"). "Nevertheless," he continued, "it would bean illusion to believe that one can put on paper what creates the beauty and the character of the performance." He preferred detailed, sectional rehearsals, "with more subtlety and understanding of colour, rhythm and expression than are now usual in many orchestras". And that was in the 1840s: it certainly says something about the perennial nature of performance criticism.

When, in the early 1970s, Bernard Haitink galvanized the LPO into re-enacting these symphonic dramas, he had the field more or less to himself. Many years earlier, the excitable and ill-fated conductor Nikolai Golovanov had recorded the 12 numbered works in Moscow. Crudely played as they often were (the brass could sound excruciatingly sharp)—and interpretatively at the opposite pole to Haitink's—the white-hot core of Liszt's inspiration nearly always burned through. Then, some years later, Kurt Masur taped the cycle in Leipzig (adding the two Lenau Faust episodes, and the two symphonies), an excellent, warmly recorded excursion, not quite as intense as Haitink's—but only four of the poems and the Second Mephisto Waltz are currently available on EMI's Studio Plus label.

Haitink's readings have an abundance of personality. In Hérolde funèbre, for example, his dangerously slow tempo exceeds Liszt's prescribed timing by some seven minutes: it is a terrifying vision, superbly sustained and beautifully played. He also copes manfully with the more explosive aspects of Hamlet, Prometheus and Hunnenschlacht (which he paces more securely than any other rival, past or present), and his way with the scores' many reflective episodes is entirely winning. Elsewhere, he sorts through the complexities of Liszt's colourful orchestration with a cool head and a warm heart, etching the frequent examples of 'nature music' much as he does Wagner's and keeping abreast of each tone-poem's narrative trail. True, some of Liszt's marcatos, impeluosos, appassionatos and agilalos are occasionally brought to heel, but then others aren't—and we have Liszt's blessing for flexibility in what he himself terms "the degree of sympathy" that conductors employ for his work. What matters is that Haitink has us enter Liszt's world direct, rather than through the distorting mirror of the conductor's own ego. It is a volatile sequence, yes, and not without its longueurs, but it remains an essential musical confrontation for all students of the romantic orchestra and an accurate pointer to where Tchaikovsky, Smetana and countless others found significant musical sustenance. With excellent sound and commonsense documentation, these two sets will provide hours of aural adventure: as with certain old movie classics, even Liszt's excesses and banalities have, in a sense, become a profound source of refreshment.

-- Gramophone [10/1994]

More reviews:


Franz Liszt (October 22, 1811 – July 31, 1886) was a prolific 19th-century Hungarian composer, virtuoso pianist, conductor, music teacher, arranger, organist, philanthropist, author, nationalist and a Franciscan tertiary. Liszt gained renown in Europe for his virtuosic skill as a pianist and in the 1840s he was considered to be the greatest pianist of all time. As a composer, Liszt was one of the most prominent composers of the "New German School". Some of his most notable musical contributions were the invention of the symphonic poem, developing the concept of thematic transformation as part of his experiments in musical form, and making radical departures in harmony.


Bernard Haitink (born 4 March 1929) is a Dutch conductor. In his glowing career, he is the principal conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw (1959-1988), London Philharmonic (1967-1979), Chicago Symphony (2006-2010) and and principal guest conductor Boston Symphony (1995-2004). Haitink has conducted and recorded a wide variety of repertoire, with the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams, and the complete piano concertos of Beethoven and Brahms with Claudio Arrau notable among his recordings.


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