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Hyperion Records

CDA67782 - Liszt: The Complete Songs, Vol. 1 – Matthew Polenzani
Photograph of Matthew Polenzani by Sim Canetty-Clarke (b?)
CDA67782

Recording details: February 2010
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: November 2010
DISCID: E1105B10
Total duration: 69 minutes 13 seconds

'Polenzani is evidently a tenor of the finest quality: a lyric voice, sweet and ingratiating, with the capacity to ring out excitingly, gloriously easy on high but with a perfectly adequate body to the tone in its middle and lower registers. He is firm and even, pleasingly expressive … he sings with warmth, intelligence and conviction, matching the superb playing of his pianist Julius Drake' (Gramophone)

'Polenzani remains an extraordinarily communicative Lieder singer, possessed of an agile and flexible voice of tremendous versatility. In the most intimate of these settings, as well as in the quasi-operatic ones, Polenzani and Drake create performances that are at once thoughtful, richly atmospheric and never less than compelling … this auspicious inauguration of the series whets the appetite for more' (International Record Review)

'This stupendous disc, issued ahead of the Liszt bicentenary next year, marks the start of Hyperion's survey of his complete songs, still a grey area for many despite past attempts by major artists such as Brigitte Fassbaender and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to rehabilitate them … as with so much of his music, their difficulty in performance is to be found in their emotional and expressive extremes. The challenges are more than met here, with Polenzani doing things in songs such as Der Fischerknabe or Pace Non Trovo that you never thought were possible for a human voice, while Drake's intensity is total and unswerving' (The Guardian)

The Complete Songs, Vol. 1 – Matthew Polenzani

The start of another Hyperion Lieder series is always cause for celebration. In advance of his bicentenary in 2011, we turn to a composer whose songs, against the vast bulk of his compositions in larger genres, were considered insignificant for well over a century.

A collaborator with some of Europe’s best singers, such as the great French tenor Adolphe Nourrit and the husband–wife duo of Feodor and Rosa von Milde (the first Elsa and Telramund in Wagner’s Lohengrin), Liszt used song as a compositional laboratory in which to experiment with ‘Zukunftsmusik’, or ‘music of the future’, including some of his most finely wrought works. A cosmopolitan artist who traveled prodigiously during his years as a virtuoso performer from 1838 to 1847, he chose song texts written both by denizens of Mount Olympus (Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Hugo, Tennyson, Tolstoy, Petrarch) and amateurs, the latter often aristocrats from Liszt’s glittering social circles. From their words he created songs that changed the very definition of the genre, that are a bridge to such later masters as Hugo Wolf, Sergei Rachmaninov and Richard Strauss.

This first volume in the series features the American tenor Matthew Polenzani who has been astounding Met opera audiences in recent years with his expressive and ardent performances. He is accompanied by the curator of the series and Hyperion regular, Julius Drake.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
‘If a few singers could be found … who would boldly venture to sing songs by the notorious non-composer Franz Liszt, they would probably find a public for them’ (Franz Liszt)

My orphaned songs’, Franz Liszt once called his repertory of art-songs in six languages (German, French, English, Hungarian, Italian, Russian) when he was expressing the hope that singers might take these works under their wings. For well over a century, Liszt’s songs were considered insignificant against the vast bulk of his compositions in larger genres, but we know better than that now. A collaborator with some of Europe’s best singers, such as the great French tenor Adolphe Nourrit and the husband–wife duo of Feodor and Rosa von Milde (the first Elsa and Telramund in Wagner’s Lohengrin), Liszt used song as a compositional laboratory in which to experiment with ‘Zukunftsmusik’, or ‘music of the future’, including some of his most finely wrought works. A cosmopolitan artist who travelled prodigiously during his years as a virtuoso performer from 1838 to 1847, he chose song texts written both by denizens of Mount Olympus (Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Hugo, Tennyson, Tolstoy, Petrarch) and amateurs, the latter often aristocrats from Liszt’s glittering social circles. From their words he created songs that changed the very definition of the genre, that are a bridge to such later masters as Hugo Wolf, Sergei Rachmaninov and Richard Strauss.

Song spans much of Liszt’s long life. He began delving into the genre by transcribing Schubert’s Lieder as virtuosic solo piano works (one song in 1833, many more in 1835–9), before composing his first song, Angiolin dal biondo crin, in 1839, when he was travelling with his mistress Marie d’Agoult in Italy. According to August Stradal, one of his piano students in the last years, Liszt’s final endeavour was the orchestration of his ballad Die Vätergruft shortly before his death on 31 July 1886. Liszt and Schubert shared a similar urge to revise or recompose prior works, and many of Liszt’s songs exist in multiple versions. He would later disparage the songs of the 1840s, telling Bettine von Arnim in April 1853 that ‘My early songs are mostly too sentimentally bloated and often excessively choked up in the accompaniments’, and he would revise or entirely rewrite many of them. But later versions are not necessarily better: Liszt’s desire in his twenties and thirties to challenge previous conceptions of song and the thrilling virtuosity of the earlier works (no amateurs allowed) make them an irresistible magnet for musicians. That his aesthetic of song changed over his long life is only to be expected from a composer who was always concerned with peering around the corner into the future. The journey from his early lush creations to his late acid-etched, austere, often enigmatic works is a long one, but from start to finish he experimented with novel formal structures, harmonic progressions, rhythmic and metric inventions, and tonal relationships.

A brief note on the publication history of Liszt’s songs: it began with a dozen songs printed in two sets by Maurice Schlesinger (active in Berlin and Paris) in 1843–4, followed by another six songs in 1844 published by Eck & Lefebvre in Cologne; the first versions both for solo piano and voice-and-piano of the Petrarch sonnets in 1846 with Haslinger in Vienna; and other miscellaneous offerings from the firms of Kistner, Schott, Hofmeister, Troupenas, and Schuberth. During the 1850s in Weimar, Liszt wrote more than twenty new songs and revised many more for his Gesammelte Lieder (Collected Songs), six volumes of which appeared with Schlesinger between 1856 and 1859; the Leipzig firm of Kahnt took over for the seventh and eighth volumes in 1860 and 1879. In the long stretch of time between volumes 7 and 8, Liszt published altered versions of some songs and was evidently considering revising the entire set of eight volumes. Music was malleable in his eyes, always susceptible to reworking.

We hear Kling leise, mein Lied in its first version, composed on 30 March 1848 to words by a prolific Austrian journalist and writer Johannes Nordmann, whose Gedichte of 1846 had garnered the censors’ disapproval for political reasons. One of Liszt’s favourite singers in Weimar, the tenor Franz Götze, particularly pleased the composer with his performances of this somewhat paradoxical lover’s serenade (the persona declares that he does not wish to awaken the beloved from her dream). For the simplified second version, Liszt eliminated the most erotic verse about the sweetheart’s nightgown clinging to her limbs and breasts. In the idiosyncratic formal structure, tailored to the composer’s reading of the poem, the refrain to the title words is set to a beautifully tender cantilena, while an interior section in a different metre and tempo (a song-within-a-song) touches upon one key after another in Liszt’s typically adventurous manner, however gentle the atmosphere.

August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, the poet of Wie singt die Lerche schön, was a close friend of Liszt and Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein in Weimar (Marie d’Agoult and the composer came to a bitter parting of ways in 1844). When Liszt founded the Neu-Weimar-Verein (the New Weimar Society) in 1854 for the purpose of defending new music from the Philistines who decried it, Hoffmann von Fallersleben wrote the society’s Twelve Commandments, including No 11: ‘Enough of the old; we hope for something new in Weimar’. The poet’s image of the ‘lark ascending’ clearly gave Liszt the idea for the impressionistic sonorities from which this small, lovely song is made.

In 1858 Liszt set to music another poem by his ‘dear, excellent friend’ Hoffmann von Fallersleben, whose elder son was named Franz in the composer’s honour: In Liebeslust. It was this poet who, in an ode in praise of the Altenburg (Liszt’s Weimar home), wrote ‘Es ist nicht eine Burg der Alten’ (‘It is not a refuge for the old’), to hymn the youthful hearts and forward-looking artistic sensibilities of those who congregated there. Liszt’s progressive, late-Romantic harmonies are on display here, complete with enharmonic key transformation in the penultimate section. The song is tightly unified by recurrences, transpositions, and metamorphoses of the three-note figure we hear at the start in the piano. For the proclamations ‘Ich liebe dich’ at the song’s climax, Liszt bids the singer to loudly declaim the words ‘ich lie—[be]’ (‘I love’) and then become hushed for the crucial word ‘dich’ (‘you’) in an example both of the contrasts Liszt loved and the emotional truth he sought.

The poet-translator Emanuel Geibel (Schumann, Brahms and Wolf, among others, would set poems from his Spanisches Liederbuch and Italienisches Liederbuch) creates his own variation on the symbolism of swans for male lovers—those phallic necks—and water-lilies for beautiful women in Die stille Wasserrose. The harmonic shifts that mark the snow-white calyx of the lily and the moon pouring its golden rays into the flower are among the notable details in a song remarkable for its tonal audacity. Hugo Wolf, who loved Liszt’s music, would later create figuration similar to that depicting the circling swan for the shy elf at midnight in ‘Auf eine Christblume I’ from the Mörike-Lieder.

The tale of the fourteenth-century Swiss folk hero Wilhelm Tell, who supposedly rebelled against Austrian domination and was one of the founders of the Swiss Confederation, was celebrated in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the symbol of resistance to tyranny. Most scholars now consider Tell to be fiction, not historical fact, but 200 years ago, many people believed the sixteenth-century Swiss historian Aegidius Tschudi’s inventions, Tell chief among them. Goethe considered writing a play on the subject and then gave the idea to his friend Friedrich von Schiller, who wrote his drama Wilhelm Tell in 1803–4. (Adolf Hitler, initially enthusiastic about the play in Mein Kampf, banned it in 1941. ‘Why did Schiller have to immortalize that Swiss sniper?’, he is reported to have said.) Act 1 begins not with the principal dramatis personae but with three Rollenlieder, or ‘character songs’ for a young fisherman, a herder, and an Alpine huntsman. Schiller directed that each song be sung to a ‘Kuhreihen’, or ‘ranz des vaches’, the horn melodies traditionally played by Swiss herdsmen as they drove their cattle to and from pasture (a category of folk music much romanticized in the nineteenth century). The first version of Liszt’s Lieder aus Schillers Wilhelm Tell, from 1845, however, is the opposite of folk-like simplicity, with the three songs, thrilling in their virtuosity, following one after the next in unbroken succession.

The first song, ‘Der Fischerknabe’, is Schiller’s variation on the German-speaking world’s Wasser-Mythos, or water-mythology, with nixies, sirens, and mermaids symbolizing the simultaneous allure and danger of female sexuality for men. Liszt begins with a lengthy water-music introduction for the piano and follows with a song whose enharmonic shifts, intricate pianistic textures, and huge range for both performers are echt early Liszt. The unnamed narrator who tells the tale ends by reporting the water-spirit’s words of triumph as she lures the lad into the water; her sinuous vocal melismas on the word ‘Ah’ at the climax seem like a new incarnation of Homer’s death-dealing sirens and their wordless songs.

With ‘Der Hirt’, Liszt sets a text that Robert Schumann would claim four years later as ‘Des Sennen Abschied’, Op 79 No 22 (from the Liederalbum für die Jugend, 1849). The two songs could not be more different. Liszt brings his genius for stylized word-painting—this is rather like a symphonic tone-poem but for voice and piano—to bear on Schiller’s poem in a manner unlike Schumann’s poignant, artfully simple song for children. Over and over, we hear a sophisticated version of the ‘ranz des vaches’, along with the cuckoo calling and distant thunder in the piano postlude as a corridor to ‘Der Alpenjäger’, one of Liszt’s most challenging songs. ‘Ma fin est mon commencement’: this is a true cycle that ends where it began, with a reminiscence of ‘Der Fischerknabe’ in the piano postlude.

Der Glückliche is a late song to a poem by the minor author Adolf Wilbrandt, who also translated a play by Pedro Calderón de la Barca into German and wrote novellas as well as poetry. Here, once again, a lover sees everything in Nature through eyes newly dazzled ever since lips and bodies met in mutual desire. Beginning with exultant but ceremonial-sounding rising harmonies in the piano, the song quickens pace and becomes ever more passionate … until the soft and reverent ending. This is a particularly moving example of Liszt’s lifelong love of extreme contrasts in song.

The words for Liszt’s first song, Angiolin dal biondo crin, were written by a friend of his, the Marchese Césare Boccella from Lucca, Tuscany. A light-pink damask rose introduced in 1842 was named ‘Marquise Boccella’ in honour of the poet’s wife, and this tender song, originally composed for Liszt’s and Marie d’Agoult’s three-year-old daughter Blandine-Rachel gives off something of the same flowery scent. The first version was published in 1843 by Schlesinger, but we hear the third version, published in 1860. (The novelist Anthony Trollope’s mother, Frances Trollope, visited Boccella on her Italian tour and praises a poem in which the Marquis scolds his friend George Sand for failing to meet properly elevated standards of womanhood.) Sadly, Blandine, who married a French statesman named Émile Ollivier, would die in 1862 at the age of twenty-six of septicaemia from an infected breast shortly after giving birth.

The Tre sonetti di Petrarca were the direct result of Liszt’s sojourn in Italy during 1838–9; we learn that he and Marie d’Agoult read Petrarch and Dante together. The origins of the poetry are legendary: on Good Friday, 6 April, 1327, the great fourteenth-century poet Petrarch saw a woman named Laura in the church of Sainte-Claire d’Avignon, and his passion for her is celebrated in the 366 poems of his Rime sparse (Scattered rhymes, later known as Il Canzoniere / The Songbook). The songs—arias in all but name—exist in both a pre-Weimar version for tenor and a later revision for mezzo-soprano or baritone; we hear the virtuosic first version on this disc. The first sonnet, ‘Pace non trovo’, is packed with Petrarch’s characteristic oxymorons, antitheses, and dichotomies (staring without eyes, crying without voice, burning and freezing alike) that bespeak the paradoxes of love. For such imagery, Liszt begins with an agitated succession of his most advanced harmonies followed by extreme contrasts between dramatic-operatic outbursts and ecstatic lyricism, twice bidding the tenor reach for the D flat above high C. In ‘Benedetto sia ’l giorno’, Petrarch calls for multiple blessings on his first sight of Laura, his love for her, and his own thoughts and verses about her. Liszt moves from key to key, benediction to benediction, in his trademark restless, innovative way. ‘I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi’ tells of heavenly angels on earth and earth-shattering beauty in the person of Laura, whose harmonious being fills the air with sweetness. This celestial song, with its breathtaking harmonic shift just before the invocation of ‘Love! wisdom! valour, pity and grief’, ends quietly and reverently.

Prince Elim Meshchersky, a poet-prince of Tartar descent (reportedly from one of Genghis Khan’s sons), died at the age of thirty-six in Paris in 1844, the year Liszt first set his poem Bist du to music. The song was subsequently revised for publication in 1879, with a piano introduction typical of late Liszt in its unharmonized, skeletal prefiguration of the song’s initial musical gestures. What follow are declarations that the beloved is as lovely as a moonlit night, pure as a pearl, cold as an Alpine glacier, strong as a rock, clear as the heavens, and so forth, a catalogue of love’s analogies in Nature of the sort that Shakespeare had earlier parodied in his Sonnet 130: ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.’ Liszt’s chordal pulsations for the cosmic realms of light, love, and beauty from which the beloved came are wonderfully rich specimens of this composer’s harmonic language.

The Berlin critic Ludwig Rellstab published a compilation of reviews and newspaper articles about Liszt in 1842 as a result of the concerts that made Liszt a phenomenon comparable to today’s biggest rock stars. In Rellstab’s words, Liszt would leave Berlin ‘not like a king, but as a king’. Three years later, Liszt set a poem by Rellstab, Es rauschen die Winde, that Schubert had earlier set to music under the title ‘Herbst’ (Autumn), D945, its theme the perennial comparison of autumn to old age and the approach of death. In Liszt’s first version, the persona is agitated and desperate, with certain figures that recall Schubert’s persona in ‘Der stürmische Morgen’ from Winterreise. The memory of springtime in parallel major mode (another song-within-a-song) also seems Schubertian in origin, proof that major mode can be as tragic as minor mode in the hands of great composers.

Franz von Dingelstedt was known primarily for his political poetry, but Liszt in 1845 chose a more conventional love poem, Schwebe, schwebe, blaues Auge, in which the sweetheart’s blue eyes make springtime blossom and warble in the persona’s heart. The song was later revised, and this is the second version (?1848). When Dingelstedt was fired as intendant of the Munich court theatre on trumped-up charges in 1856, the generous Liszt helped him to obtain a similar post in Weimar, but two years later, Dingelstedt would be the prime mover and shaker in Liszt’s forced resignation as Kapellmeister in Weimar. When Liszt visited Weimar briefly in 1864, Dingelstedt behaved well, however, even reconvening the Neu-Weimar-Verein for the occasion. The sweetness regnant through much of this song is broken every few phrases or so by brief outbursts of ecstasy; in Liszt’s unique structure, tenderness alternates with exultation and excitement, quite like the actual experience of love in its early stages.

When Liszt in 1856 heard that the poet Heinrich Heine had died, Mathilde Wesendonck (who wrote the poems for Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder) asked him if he thought that Heine’s name would be inscribed in the temple of immortality. ‘Yes, but in mud’, Liszt famously replied. The two men knew each other in Paris, but Heine could, and often did, attack erstwhile comrades with the razor-sharp weapon of his matchless wit, and his dislike for Liszt the man eventually outweighed his qualified admiration for Liszt the performer. Fortunately, Liszt created some of the best Heine songs of the century—and Heine was enormously popular with composers—before the ultimate rift between the two men in 1844, and one of those songs is Im Rhein, im schönen Strome. Heine initially supported the massive campaign to complete the building of Cologne Cathedral (the Kölner Dom, officially the Hohe Domkirche St Peter und Maria), begun in 1248 to house the Shrine of the Three Kings but left unfinished in the sixteenth century. The poet even served as vice-president of the Parisian fundraising committee but withdrew when he realized that the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV had reactionary politico-religious reasons for underwriting the project. But it is the poet’s youthful fascination with the cathedral and its treasures that infuses this poem, in which Heine invokes the famous retable altarpiece depicting The Adoration of the Magi (the scene when opened) and The Annunciation (the scene when closed) by the late Gothic artist Stephan Lochner from c1440–45. The pious Catholic Liszt was more deeply involved in the Cologne Cathedral enterprise than was Heine: Liszt was elected an honorary member of the steering committee in 1841 and gave concerts on behalf of the giant building project in Berlin and Cologne. We hear his first setting of these words, composed in 1840, in which Liszt creates cascading water-music half a century before Debussy and Ravel made watery strains a hallmark of Impressionism in music. We cannot mistake the sheer power of this river as it ripples up and down the length of the piano. (The later setting brings the river’s waves under control and darkens them in accord with the increased melancholy of his late songs.) For the first setting Liszt provides a choice of two piano accompaniments, and on this recording we hear the ‘ossia’ version—marked, with some understatement, ‘più difficile’.

Susan Youens © 2010


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