Liszt has always struck me as a latter-day John Donne: passionate, creative and a ladies’ man in his youth; turning more inwards and closer to God later in life; yet ultimately leading a conflicted life, since both states coexisted in one form or another from the start. That’s what makes Hyperion’s non-chronological complete survey of Liszt’s songs such a fascinating listening experience—apart, of course, from the quality of the songs themselves and the superlative nature of the performances. One gets the whole man, rather than just a slice.
Previous volumes from Julius Drake with tenor Matthew Polenzani, mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager and bass-baritone Gerald Finley have already set the bar high. But Grammy Award-winning American mezzo Sasha Cooke is right up there, with a voice as rich and responsive as her musicality. The majority of the songs here, drawn from across a 37-year period, tend towards the introspective and one has only to listen to the lush repose of the opening Des Tages laute Stimmen schweigen Cooke evokes as the day draws to an end. Or the tastefully characterised romantic drama of Il m’aimait tant! Or the delicate rendering of Liszt’s marvelous setting of Blume und Duft, or the profound darkness of 1845’s Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß.
Throughout the recording, Drake’s piano accompaniments do full justice to Liszt’s skilful word painting while possessing a poetry all of its own.