When Franz Liszt died in 1886, months short of his 75th birthday, he left one of the largest and most diverse bodies of music composed in the 19th century. There’s an innovative and influential body of orchestral music; about 130 choral works, sacred and secular; a smattering of chamber music; several volumes of organ music; and some 430 individual piano works that extended the instrument’s potential. Small wonder that his 75 or so songs have been overshadowed and are rarely heard.
Beginning in 2010, the distinguished English pianist Julius Drake set out to remedy this neglect with a recording project encompassing all the songs. The American musicologist Susan Youens, an authority on the 19th-century song, serves as adviser and provides the excellent booklet notes. The most recent installment in the series includes German and French songs spanning 40 years, sung by the ravishing American mezzo Sasha Cooke.
Liszt sometimes returned to the same text three or four times over decades. For instance, he set a tiny poem by Charlotte von Hagn, Was Liebe Sie, first in 1843. A decade later, he revisited it, and yet again in 1879. Cooke’s and Drake’s distinct characterizations of each of the three versions, increasingly subtle and succinct, are delightful.
Not surprisingly for a seasoned Mahler and Berlioz singer, Cooke’s vocal and dramatic gifts are shown to greatest advantage in two larger-scale songs, Goethe’s Kennst du das Land and Heine’s ballad Die Loreley. She successfully negotiates the challenges to her top and bottom ranges in Die Loreley, vividly relating the tale of the river siren.
Most remarkable, however, are the seven latest songs on the disc. Cooke and Drake lavish sympathy and understanding on these challenging exemplars of Liszt’s austere, introverted and prophetic late style.