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Hyperion Records

CDA66593 - Liszt: The complete music for solo piano, Vol. 19 – Liebesträume & the Songbooks
Venus and her Doves by William Etty (1787-1849)
City of Manchester Art Gallery
CDA66593

Recording details: October 1991
St Martin's Church, East Woodhay, Berkshire, United Kingdom
Produced by Tryggvi Tryggvason
Engineered by Tryggvi Tryggvason
Release date: November 1992
DISCID: DE116A10
Total duration: 73 minutes 8 seconds

'Among the most readily and revealingly appealing issues of Howard's stupendous enterprise. Enthusiastically recommended' (Fanfare, USA)

The complete music for solo piano, Vol. 19 – Liebesträume & the Songbooks
Hohe Liebe  [5'44]
Seliger Tod  [4'04]
Mignons Lied  [5'54]
Gastibelza, S540  [4'43]
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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
It is probably only just that the best known work of the greatest transcriber in the history of Western music should be a transcription, but fortunate, at least, that it should be a transcription of one of his own works. The third of the Liebesträume, often quite erroneously entitled ‘Liebestraum No 3’ (the plural applies to each piece), is one of the world’s most treasured melodies, and it has been the piano transcription, rather than the equally splendid original song, that has claimed a permanent place on the short-list of best love-inspired themes. But all three pieces are characterised by generous melodic lines, and they work very well as a group—as do the original songs. Each piece bears the title ‘Notturno’, and the subtitle—the song title, in fact—and the full text of the song follow. As a triptych, the Liebesträume invite comparison with the three settings of Petrarch sonnets, which also became better known as piano pieces. (In this series of recordings those transcriptions will appear in due course in both versions.) For the German songs, however, Liszt used two different poets: Ludwig Uhland’s Hohe Liebe speaks of the heaven on earth that has come from being drunk in the arms of love, and his Seliger Tod (the piece has often been known by the poem’s first line: ‘Gestorben war ich’) makes the conceit of love being a happy death awakened by a kiss, while Ferdinand Freiligrath’s O Lieb! enjoins us to love whilst we may, for love lost is miserable. (There is an earlier piano piece based on the second of these songs which will appear later in this series, and a later echo of it in the second of the Meyendorff Klavierstücke, which has already been recorded on volume 11: Late Pieces.)

The two Liszt Songbooks contain twelve of his early songs in very straightforward transcriptions, in the sense that the music basically follows the original song bar-for-bar, with a certain amount of cadential licence but without the addition of extended variation. Liszt makes every effort to preserve all of the character, if not the actual text, of the original accompaniment, and he adds the vocal line to the texture, often distributed between the two hands and sometimes doubled at the octave. All of these transcriptions are rarities, largely due to Liszt’s acute self-criticism in the matter of his songs. All six of the transcriptions in the first book follow upon an issue in one volume of the six original songs. But Liszt withdrew the songs and revised them, and allowed the transcriptions to fade away because they no longer represented his attitude to the poems. Eventually he made a transcription of the revised setting of Heine’s Die Lorelei which was for a time rather popular, but the others remained in only the one-piano version. The second book suffered a worse fate: all six transcriptions remained in manuscript. Four of the songs later underwent revision. The transcriptions were believed lost for many years, although they were tantalisingly mentioned in a few catalogues, and it was not until the excellent Neue Liszt-Ausgabe volume I/18 of 1985 that they were finally published.

The poetry which inspired all these works is generally familiar. Heine’s Die Lorelei tells the familiar story of the siren-like witch who haunts a rock in the river Rhine—Liszt’s dramatic setting (in either version) is vastly superior to the tawdry little Silcher version beloved of amateur children’s choruses, but the revised version is more subtle, less four-square, and there may even be a deliberate hint of the Tristan prelude in the introduction; Am Rhein im schönen Strome (‘In the beautiful waters of the Rhine’) is also by Heine and best known in Schumann’s setting in Dichterliebe—but Schumann changes ‘schönen’ to ‘heiligen’ and, having thus canonised the river, makes his song an allegory, whereas Liszt remains faithful to the beauty of the waters which he reflects in a florid accompaniment of either 9 or 12 notes to the bar (he used the 12-note version in the transcription); Mignons Lied from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister—Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn (‘Do you know the land where the lemons bloom’)—has been set by many a composer (Liszt made a transcription of Beethoven’s setting, for example, recorded on volume 15 of the present series) and Liszt’s setting has proved one of his more durable songs. The music reflects the growing intensity of each verse of the poem, and the faster refrain: ‘Dahin!’ (‘Return!’) eventually requires the most impassioned expression. Goethe’s ballad of the king of Thule and his golden goblet—the gift of his dying lady love which brought tears to his eyes whenever he drank from it, and which he threw into the sea as he was dying rather than allow it to be inherited—is one of Liszt’s finest dramatic songs, and the transcription contains no superfluous decoration. Der du von dem Himmel bist (‘You who are from Heaven’) is again from Goethe and much beloved of composers. Subtitled ‘Invocation’, the piece is held together by a felicitous motif of pair of rising and falling semiquavers. The last of the collection, actually the first-composed of all the Liszt songs, was originally set in Italian —Bocella’s poem Angiolin dal biondo crin (‘Little angel with the golden locks’)—and later issued in German as ‘Englein du mit blondem Haar’. Both titles and the poems in both languages appear at the head of the piano transcription. The piece is a very simple love song in six verses, which becomes almost like a set of variations in the transcription.

All of the songs chosen for the second songbook are settings of Victor Hugo, and the first four, at least, have always been amongst Liszt’s most performed songs. His setting of the French language came easier to him at first than German setting, and his melodic style was often more expansive as a result. In Oh! quand je dors (‘Oh! when I sleep’) the poet asks for his lover to appear to him as Laura did to Petrarch. Comment, disaient-ils (‘How? say the lads’) is one of Liszt’s few songs at an animated tempo and suits to perfection Hugo’s little dialogue of questions and answers from the lads to the lasses. Enfant, si j’étais roi (‘Child, if I were king’)—a marvellous poem of love, telling first of what the poet would do for the child if he were king, and if he were God—set by Liszt with real majesty. S’il est un charmant gazon (‘If it is a charming green’) is a graceful setting of another love poem whose conceits are that the poet would like to be the path beneath the lover’s foot, or a nest for the lover’s heart (the text of the Liszt transcription presents a few minor problems towards the end: this performance transposes the right hand down by an octave in bars 48-56). La tombe et la rose is an allegorical conversation between a grave and a rose, each pressing its merits upon the other, the grave’s final observation being that out of every soul it receives it makes an angel. Liszt’s intense tremolos and dotted rhythms make it a powerful piece indeed. Gastibelza is the song of an eponymous carabiniero in the form of a bolero-cum-love-song of the man with the rifle who is made mad by ‘le vent qui vient à travers le montagne’ (‘the wind that comes over the mountain’). Here Liszt wisely shortened the number of verses of the original song in order to make a tighter construction for the piano piece and a fitting conclusion to the collection as a whole.

Leslie Howard © 1992


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