This Friday Hyperion will release the fourth volume of pianist Julius Drake’s project to record the complete songs of Franz Liszt. The vocalist is mezzo Sasha Cooke, making this the second album featuring a mezzo vocalist.
Readers who have been following the progress of the project are probably wondering how much longer it will continue. It is thus worth taking the time to 'review the bidding,' so to speak, regarding Drake’s progress. The first volume was released in November of 2010 and consisted of sixteen songs performed by tenor Matthew Polenzani. This was followed in July of 2012 by an album of eighteen songs featuring mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager. The third volume presented bass-baritone Gerald Finley offering fifteen songs, and it was released in March of 2015. Cooke’s volume adds seventeen songs to the collection. That makes for a total of 66.
The Music works of Franz Liszt Wikipedia page is somewhat vague as to how many songs Liszt wrote. The number it gives is 'about six dozen original songs', which, for those who do not want to do the math, is 72. It is important to note that many of these songs went through more than one version, which may be why the Wikipedia author included the adjective “original.” For example, in the recordings that Drake has made, there are two versions of Liszt’s settings of sonnets by Petrarch (number 47, 104, and 123). The first version was composed between 1842 and 1846 and is on Polenzani’s album. The second was composed in 1864 and is on the Finley album. (Then of course there are the solo piano versions, composed between 1839 and 1846 and included in the Italian 'year' of Années de Pèlerinage.) To make matters more complicated, some poems are given more than one setting, meaning that there is more than one “original.” The best example of this is Heinrich Heine’s poem Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam, whose first setting (sung by Kirchschlager) was composed between 1845 and 1860, the latter being the year in which the second setting (sung by Finley) was composed. With all of that context, it would be reasonable to assume that at least one more album will be on the way.
As can be seen from the Petrarch settings, there is a fair amount of cross-fertilization between Liszt’s songs and his solo piano music. On the new album this will register with most listeners in his setting of Heine’s Die Loreley. It is also interesting to observe that all of the settings of poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (which are relatively few in number) were composed in the mezzo range and are therefore shared by Kirchschlager and Cooke.
On a less objective note, I have to confess that I have a weak spot for Cooke in my listening preferences. I have listened to her in recitals, in concert performances with the San Francisco Symphony, and in the War Memorial Opera House with the San Francisco Opera. She commands a broad repertoire that allows her to avoid 'type casting;' and, regardless of repertoire, I never fail to be drawn into her ability to seek out just the right style of execution for anything she chooses to sing. Thus, if I find myself more absorbed by certain matters of detail on this new album, the cause may have more to do with Cooke as a performer than with Liszt as a composer! Indeed, I might even go as far as to suggest that those seeking out an initial experience of Liszt’s approach to art songmight do better to start with this most recent album, rather than approach listening in the order in which Hyperion has produced these four CDs.