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Hyperion Records

CDA67015 - Liszt: The complete music for solo piano, Vol. 38 – Les Préludes
CDA67015

Recording details: June 1995
St Peter's Church, Petersham, United Kingdom
Produced by Tryggvi Tryggvason
Engineered by Marian Freeman
Release date: February 1996
DISCID: A511270A
Total duration: 73 minutes 6 seconds

'A rewarding collection, very well played and recorded' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'Prueba evidente del absoluto dominio y comprensión musical que posee el intérprete de la obra del compositor hungaro' (CD Compact, Spain)

The complete music for solo piano, Vol. 38 – Les Préludes
Waldesrauschen  [4'47]
Gnomenreigen  [3'10]

Six of Liszt's important contributions to the literature of the pianoforte étude occupy the centre of this programme. They are flanked by two works unfamiliar in their present guise: the solo piano versions of Les Préludes and Der nächtlige Zug (the first of the Episodes from Lenau's Faust).

The Faust legend preoccupied Liszt for much of his life, Goethe's rendering of it inspiring the orchestral masterpiece, the Faust Symphony. Among the works inspired by Lenau's poem we find the Episodes here presented. Der nächtlige Zug is clearly one of his finest works and its neglect in all of its guises is inexplicable; the second of the episodes is an early version of the phenomenally successful First Mephisto Waltz.


Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Six of Liszt’s important contributions to the literature of the pianoforte étude occupy the centre of this programme. They are flanked by two works unfamiliar in their present guise: the solo piano versions of Les Préludes and Der nächtliche Zug. The Liszt catalogues have usually failed to include these piano versions of works better known as orchestral music because Liszt, generous to a fault, allowed the names of two of his pupils to appear on the published scores as the transcribers.

In the case of Les Préludes, easily the most popular of Liszt’s thirteen symphonic poems, Karl Klauser may have prepared a rough draft before Liszt took the job over (Liszt issued the piece as a ‘Partition de piano par K. Klauser, avec des additions de F. Liszt’) but the final text was entirely Liszt’s responsibility. The structure of the piece differs from the orchestral score (whose final version dates from around 1854) in a few minor matters towards the end. The work was originally sketched as an introduction to a large-scale choral/orchestral work, Les quatre élémens, to a poem by Autran. When the music was reconstructed for the symphonic poem, Liszt allied it to Lamartine’s poem Les Préludes, although it is clear that the programmatic function of the title—along with the poem: ‘What is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown song of which the first note is sounded by death? …’—is really just an afterthought to encourage the listener to attach extra-musical philosophy to abstract musical ideas. Despite the comparative post-war decline in the work’s fortunes—aggravated by Hitler’s enthusiasm for it—Les Préludes remains a good introduction to the world of Liszt’s orchestral music, with its neatly defined structure and attractive melodic ideas, most of which derive from the opening phrase. (The similarity of the second theme to the trio from Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony may be regarded as entirely accidental, since the Schubert was unpublished and unknown at the time of Liszt’s first conception of his melody.) Liszt also published versions of Les Préludes for two pianos and for piano duet. The solo piano transcription is in the spirit of Liszt’s Beethoven and Berlioz transcriptions in its attempt to be as faithful a recreation of the texture and spirit of the original as possible, rather than simply a literal account of the notation.

This series has already presented the three versions of what are best known as Liszt’s Transcendental Studies (in Volumes 26, 34 and 4), and will in time include a further version of Mazeppa and all the versions of the ‘Paganini Études’. The Morceau de salon—Étude de perfectionnement has also appeared (in Volume 34). The remaining works are six in number and include the revised version of the last-mentioned study which now bears the title Ab Irato (‘In a rage’)—a happy description of this taut little piece, notwithstanding the brief respite before the coda. Typically, Liszt removed one or two of the nastier technical hurdles in his revision, but also introduced crossed hands in the theme to delineate it more clearly: its upper voice is now carried by the left thumb whilst the remainder of the hand plays accompanying chords, and the right hand simply plays the theme an octave lower.

The Trois Études de concert—or Trois Caprices poétiques as they were called in the second edition—are merely numbered I, II and III in the manuscript. A later French edition bears an Italian title for each piece and, however appropriate they may seem, exactly whence these titles come remains a mystery. They may well have nothing to do with Liszt himself, although they were in use during his lifetime and employed in at least two editions prepared by Liszt’s students within the master’s lifetime, and thus might have had his nodded approval. In any event, it is by these Italian titles that these admired studies are universally known. II Lamento is an extended piece with a capricious introduction which returns at the close. The main body of the work presents, extends and varies a lyrical theme, which continues with a sequential development allowing the most far-reaching modulations before the most ardent climax returns the music to the original A flat major, and a rather gentle series of concluding variations.

La Leggierezza (‘Lightness’) also begins a capriccio, but quickly finds its main material in a very simple single line in each hand, and the unusual tempo direction ‘Quasi allegretto’ (which is almost always ignored in performance in favour of something more frenetic). Like the other pieces in this set, it is monothematic, but the contours of the original theme must be sensed more than observed under the delicate decoration with which it is subsequently varied. Liszt’s quiet ending did not seem sufficiently applause-gathering to the great Polish pedagogue (but very minor composer) Theodor Leschetizky (1830–1915). He embellished the piece with a new coda which used to be regularly adopted in concert. With best respects, the present writer prefers not to be a hostage to those that already find Liszt vulgar (and how this conclusion is reached specifically for Liszt without embracing many another prolific Renaissance man—Haydn, for example?—is itself a conundrum, although Liszt’s music has frequently been performed vulgarly enough), and Liszt’s gentle Picardie cadence is retained here.

Un Sospiro (‘A sigh’) is the best known of the set, and was much taught by Liszt in his later years. The felicity with which, in a single work, Liszt took the speciality of Sigismund Thalberg (1812–1871)—the technical sleight of hand whereby a melody is surrounded or supported by arpeggios such that an impression of three hands at the keyboard is given—and ennobled it once and for always with one of his finest melodic inspirations has kept this piece in demand from the beginning. (For the benefit of anyone who has not seen this piece performed, it should be mentioned that the melody notes are taken by left and right hand in turn whilst both hands maintain the flowing accompaniment.) In his masterclasses Liszt took to adding a cadenza at the fermata before the return of the theme in the home key—where it is ever more cleverly divided between the thumbs whilst the accompaniment manages to travel far and wide in both hands. The cadenza that he wrote for Auguste Rennebaum in 1875 is included at this point, but, because it would be a pity not to have them, the cadenzas that he wrote for Henrik Gobbi (date unknown) and for Lina Schmalhausen (1885) are included by way of an optional preamble. Lina Ramann preserved Liszt’s late alternative coda in the Liszt-Pädagogium, and this text is adopted here. Liszt at once preserves the mediant progressions of the transition sections of the etude in the ascending right hand whilst introducing a descending whole-tone scale in the left.

Waldesrauschen (‘Forest murmurs’) and Gnomenreigen (‘Round dance of the gnomes’) were dedicated to Liszt’s student and ardent apologist Dionys Pruckner and are musical poems of great imagination whose technical application seems quite secondary. The first is a study in evenness of repeated patterns accompanying a flowing melody (marked ‘Vivace’ by Liszt, and often taken unaccountably slowly. Surely the test is to play with finesse at some speed to allow the melody to be both vivacious and gracious?), but its essence is one of spirit and colour, and the forest which it evokes is on more celestial a plane (Liszt’s favourite added-sixth chord which he allows to swirl about in many a religious piece: Bénédiction de Dieu dans la soltitude, for example) than that of Wagner’s Siegfried and the Woodbird. The plethora of instructions to play very quickly and still faster in Gnomenreigen reminds one of Schumann, and, as with Schumann, the performer dares not be too literal about it. This ever-popular study alternates between two themes—a ‘Presto scherzando’ in F sharp minor of half-lit crushed notes, as if at play in secret, and a brilliant toccata, ‘Un poco piů animato’—as if hidden spirits are revealed—which first appears in A major. The first passage returns unaltered, then the second is transposed up a semitone to B flat major, leading to a development of the first section in G minor, where the character remains occluded with latent mystery. The music suddenly slips to F sharp minor over a pedal C sharp in order for the final triumphant revelation of the second theme, before the essential other-worldliness of the first theme claims the coda. The spirit of the work is very much that of a benevolent sort of Mephisto waltz—these gnomes are good spirits, as testified by Liszt’s bringing them home in a key which he always reserves to describe the joy of the life to come.

The Faust legend preoccupied Liszt for much of his life, and Goethe’s rendering of it inspired his orchestral masterpiece, the Faust Symphony. His other works on the subject were a response in the first instance to Lenau’s poem, although the late Mephisto Waltzes 2–4, the Bagatelle sans tonalité and the Mephisto-Polka do not specify the particular poetic source of inspiration. The Zwei Episoden aus Lenaus Faust (‘Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust’) for orchestra were completed by 1861, but Liszt’s piano version of Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke—[Erster] Mephisto-Walzer (‘Dance in the Village Inn—[First] Mephisto Waltz’), which preceded the orchestral version, had already appeared. When the orchestral works were published in 1866, versions transcribed by the composer of both pieces for piano solo and for piano duet were announced. It appears that Liszt’s student Robert Freund prepared the solo version of the first piece: Der nächtliche Zug (‘The nocturnal procession’) under Liszt’s instruction, and then Liszt took over, leaving his mark in every bar of Freund’s manuscript and adding numerous pasted-in alterations. The piece appeared as ‘Für das Pianoforte bertragen vom Componisten’ on the cover, with ‘übertragen von R. Freund’ over the first line of the music, but the final text is clearly Liszt’s. This is a work of frightening solemnity, as Faust is confronted with the dark mysteries of life and death, and the outer sections are bleak and almost atonal. The two central sections are in gentle contrast, the first purgatorial in its yearning and tonal flux, the second quietly and eventually grandly confident in its singing of the Easter plainsong ‘Pange, lingua, gloriosi corporis mysterium’. As many a writer on Liszt has observed, this is clearly one of his finest works, and its neglect in all of its guises is inexplicable, particularly in the light of the phenomenal success of its companion piece. The First Mephisto Waltz needs no introduction, and it has already appeared in this series in Volume 1 in a version incorporating two much later additions which belong to its separate career.

The present recording is of the familiar original version, but now there is an opportunity to hear it in the context of the two Episodes together as Liszt conceived them, Mephisto’s mad whirl of earthly pleasures mocked a perfect foil for the awesome fatalism of Faust’s vision on his night ride. Humphrey Searle, in The Music of Liszt, cannot be bettered in his paraphrase of the episodes from Lenau’s poem:

(1) It is a warm spring night, dark and gloomy, but the nightingales are singing. Faust enters on horseback, letting his horse quietly saunter on. Soon lights are seen through the trees, and a religious procession approaches, singing … The procession passes on, and Faust, left alone, weeps bitterly into his horse’s mane. (2) Faust and Mephistopheles enter the inn in search of pleasure; the peasants are dancing, and Mephisto seizes the violin and intoxicates the audience with his playing. They abandon themselves to love-making, and two by two slip out into the starlit night, Faust with one of the girls; then the singing of the nightingale is heard through the open doors.

The solo piano version does not contain Liszt’s quiet alternative ending to the orchestral version depicting the company sinking ‘in the ocean of their own lust’, but has Mephisto laugh, dance, and the vision is abandoned.

Leslie Howard © 1996


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