Ever since Graham Johnson started masterminding and coaching the first complete survey of Schubert’s songs (and, lo and behold, this is more than 30 years ago!) Hyperion have been in the forefront when it comes to complete issues of songs. Their latest effort, the complete songs of Franz Liszt, including every setting and every version (Liszt was a notorious reviser of his works) has now reached volume 5, and in all likelihood we should soon be approaching the finish of the race. The previous four—I have reviewed three of them and of course heard volume two which my colleague John France gave a strong recommendation—have had glowing receptions, volume two was a BBC Music Magazine Award Winner, and Volume 3 Gramophone Editor’s Choice. I had previously only heard Allan Clayton in a complete recording of Mozart’s Zaide recorded in 2016, only some months before the majority of these songs were set down, and I appreciated him a lot and saw him as a good Mozart singer in the making. Judging from what I hear in the present recital he has resources for more dramatic repertoire than that. First and foremost he is a superb lyric tenor with mellifluous tone and lots of soft nuances, but he can also generate considerable power and intensity in dramatic passages and then he also produces top notes with glowing steel in the kernel. Liszt’s songs, as so much else of his output, are full of contrasts and that is something Allan Clayton makes the most of. Also he is willing to take risks and once or twice he may be a bit over the top, but better that than being too careful and fall in a much more dangerous trap: blandness. I don’t think blandness is a word in his personal dictionary and on this recording, with Julius Drake in top-shape, we are exposed to some of the most stimulating Lisztian piano playing I have ever heard in a song recording: powerfully thunderous, brilliant but never crude. And in the opposite end of the dynamic range he is so sensitive and soft. Voice and instrument are certainly adjusted to each other.
Some of Liszt’s most beautiful songs are excellently performed on this disc: the tender Du bist wie eine Blume (tr. 6), the Hugo setting Oh! Quand je dors (tr. 9)—a song I first got to know many years ago in the legendary recording with Heddle Nash and Gerald Moore from 1948 (available at Youtube), Ich liebe dich (tr. 13) and, not to forget the Goethe setting Über allen Gipfeln (tr. 4), beginning so softly and inwardly and then growing seamlessly in a crescendo to the dramatic zenith. And it is in these songs with bold contrasts that Clayton and Drake are at their most convincing. The fourth version of Die Lorelei (tr. 3), beginning so beautifully and inwardly and then gathering power and big gestures.
The song where I, at least initially, was a bit taken aback, was one of the best known and most loved Liszt pieces, Liebestraum No 3. To most lovers of classical music it is a popular piano piece but the original is a song, or rather one of three songs with the collective title Liebesträume (Dreams of Love). All three are filled with feeling and in the third, O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst (Love as long as you can) it seems that the singer wears his heart almost too much on his sleeve, he almost distorts the melody. But when I immediately replayed the song I thought 'Well, maybe, after all … ' So I tried it again and … I’m still in two minds but I’ve started to accept it. Probably I will grow to like it. I have a fairly large collection of Liszt songs but very few recordings of this particular one. Hildegard Behrens recorded all three but her Wagnerian voice was far too big and unwieldy and Elly Ameling maybe too pretty and I haven’t found a single male voice in it. Nicolai Gedda in the late 1990s recorded two CDs with Liszt songs but he also avoided the Liebesträume.
To sum up my reactions to this latest issue in the Liszt cycle: it is a fascinating disc with some of the best of his songs in, very often, extremely beautiful readings and with a willingness to penetrate the dramatic possibilities that is praiseworthy. There is a freshness of approach that is stimulating, Julius Drake accompanies in a manner that Liszt himself would have admired—and there isn’t a dull phrase in the whole recital. And we shouldn’t forget Susan Youens’s excellent liner notes. As usual they add a lot to the enjoyment of the individual songs. This series certainly goes from strength to strength.