Hyperion’s series of the complete songs by Franz Liszt has gone from strength to strength ever since they launched it with volume 1 all of nine years ago, where the singer was the excellent Matthew Polenzani. Now that we reach volume 6 we encounter soprano Julia Kleiter, and here is a singer at the height of her career who has all the prerequisites to be a first class song interpreter. I remember her from a DVD of Mozart’s La finta giardiniera conducted by Harnoncourt more than one dozen years ago and was struck by her ‘fresh, youthful voice [which] was a pleasure to hear, just as much as her charmingly bitchy acting’. Her voice has no doubt matured but it is still as fresh as it was all those years ago, and I am still struck by her deeply intensely readings—though ‘bitchy’ is not le mot just here, but it only confirms that her way with the words is utterly convincing.
The songs on the present disc are largely unhackneyed and may surprise readers who only are familiar with the most popular songs. The first four, for instance, are really lovely. Schwebe, schwebe, blaues Auge is intensely romantic, Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth has a wonderful melody, ditto Kling leise, mein Lied and Enfant, si j’étais roi stands out for the thrilling accompaniment. In all four Julia Kleiter’s beautiful singing and keen articulation of the texts ennobles the songs. The last of the four is also the first of a quartet of Victor Hugo settings—a poet who often inspires composers to give of their best. This goes for Liszt as well, and the last of the group, Oh! Quand je dors, is one of his best known. I have long treasured a recording of that song with Heddle Nash, recorded in 1948, who catches the dreamy atmosphere to perfection, but Julia Kleiter certainly is his equal and Julius Drake’s accompaniment is just as good as Gerald Moore’s on that old recording.
Goethe’s Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn, Mignon’s song from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, must be one of the poems most frequently set to music: Beethoven, Fibich, Fanny Mendelssohn, Anton Rubinstein, Othmar Schoeck, Schubert, Schumann, Spohr, Spontini, Tchaikovsky and Hugo Wolf are only a fraction of the total number of composers who have been drawn to that text. Liszt’s first version is a worthy addition to the list.
Ludwig Rellstab, perhaps better known as an influential music critic than a poet, and has been remembered as the one who gave Beethoven’s piano sonata no 14 the nickname Moonlight Sonata. However, Schubert set seven of his poems as part of Schwanengesang and Liszt also set a couple of poems. Wo weilt er? is not one of the best known of his songs but, like most of them, it grows on you with repeated listening. Heine’s Die Loreley is, on the other hand, one of his greatest and here we get his first thoughts about the poem. The three songs from Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell are also among his strongest, though this second version isn’t as grandiloquent as the first. Die Macht der Musik, this celebration of the powers of music, is grand, with a long piano introduction and operatic feeling. This is almost exalted music and Julia Kleiter and Julius Drake turn in a formidable and in the end thoroughly gripping reading.
The concluding cradle song, a setting of Hugo, wasn’t generally known until 1974, when it was published as part of an article in a Hungarian music magazine and The Musical Times. It is a nice little piece, like an encore to this recital that begs the audience good night.
Julia Kleiter has a long and varied discography, including a couple of song recitals and this Liszt recital adds worthily to that list. Collectors of this Liszt series can safely add this latest issue to their collections, which more and more stands out as one of the most valuable surveys of the song repertoire. Susan Youens’s liner notes are as before utterly valuable.