Kenneth Hamilton Plays Liszt Vol 1 Prima Facie

Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Volume 1: Death and Transfiguration
Kenneth Hamilton (piano)
rec. 2020/21, Cardiff University School of Music
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
PRIMA FACIE PFCD167/8 [2 CDs: 152]

I’ve heard of the pianist Kenneth Hamilton before but this is my first chance to hear him on a CD.

The first piece in this two-disc set comes from Liszt’s ten-part cycle “Harmonies poétiques et religieuses”. As I reviewed a complete recording of this cycle of works last year (see here), it was interesting to compare those performances with those here. The first piece is “Funérailles”, the seventh from the cycle. Here, Dr. Hamilton is slightly faster than Saskia Giorgini but somehow manages to convey even more terror than she did in her brilliant recording. The opening funeral bells (with some additional bars added for this performance) work extremely well. There is a sense of desolation here in the playing which adds to the mounting tension before the funereal theme in F minor begins (at 2’04’’). This is taken slowly but has an underlying menace; even when the mood lightens, there is always a sense that it is temporary. When Hamilton gets to the famous galloping section, often said to be inspired by Liszt’s reaction to Chopin’s A flat major “Heroic” Polonaise (Op.53), the atmosphere is still edgy and nervy. This crescendoes into a repeat of the F minor tune from the opening at about 9’15’’; the effect is shattering. Once this outburst has past, the last few pages of music are a compacted repeat of what we’ve heard before with a final cataclysmic reminiscence of the galloping hooves motif and a very quiet ending. This is an absolutely magnificent performance of this piece. 

Following this and, in a complete contrast of mood, is Liszt’s masterpiece “Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude” here also given a swifter performance than Ms. Giorgini. Generally, I do prefer this piece played more slowly but here, the details are crystal clear. A sense of serenity and calm, especially in the opening and closing thirds of the work, pervades the whole work and the playing is absolutely top notch. The middle Minuetto type of movement is also paced very well and, I notice that, following with the score, there are myriad details which are pointed up in this excellent performance. The last section, starting with a “Preludio” but transforming into a fantastic and impassioned variation of the music from the outset, is just perfect. Perhaps I need to rethink my opinion of the speed of this work?

Liszt’s later works are often filled with strange and advanced harmonies for the time in which they were written.  For example, he actually wrote at the top of the score for the first version of the Csárdás Macabre (track 3) “May one write or listen to such a thing?” referring to the opening of that version which consists of parallel fifths. This earlier version has, for some weird reason, been recorded more often than the later one recorded here. The work is in bare octaves before ultimately ending up in parallel fifths (like the earlier version). This is one of my favourite late Liszt pieces, with its sinister atmosphere and mocking, sardonic tone and it is played here absolutely magnificently. The virtuosity is immediate from the outset and the speed is a little faster than other recordings I’ve heard. I think the main reason this performance appeals so much to me, despite the many, many times I’ve heard it, is the attack on the notes – it is played with extreme precision and this adds to the mounting terror as the work progresses.

Next is another work from the “Harmonies poétiques et religieuses” – this time the fourth of the set titled “Pensée des Morts” which is based, in part, on an earlier work with the same title as the final version of the whole set. The opening is very strange, full of odd harmonies and here sounds very mournful. This gradually builds to a devastating climax where all the stress is resolved with a simple statement of the theme which can be traced back to Liszt’s much earlier work for piano and orchestra, ‘De Profundis’ (S691). This ‘De Profundis’ music dominates the whole latter half of “Pensée des Morts”, presented beautifully with no trace of the histrionics of the opening.  Here the playing is other-worldly and perfectly controlled.  All the little inflections that Liszt uses in the score are present.  Overall, this is a stunning performance that somehow manages to act almost as a journey from stress and storminess to calm reflection, all in twelve minutes. Liszt’s strange little late work “Nuages Gris” (Grey Clouds) is another piece packed with strange harmonies and abrupt changes of key. This was much admired by later composers and here is played with panache and a great sense of mystery throughout. 

The final, and most substantial work on the first of these 2 discs is the Sonata in B minor. Based upon Dr. Hamilton’s performance in the previous pieces on these discs, I had expected a confident, muscular, virtuosic rendition and I was not at all disappointed.  It’s also on the slightly faster side than some but, obviously, it’s not all about the timing. The tense opening is magnificently controlled before the octaves that represent the opening theme leap out of the keyboard. The sense of virtuosic abandon here is palpable as the work proceeds through various themes that are masterfully combined and metamorphosed in a multitude of ways. The playing here is aristocratic and very exciting – even in the slower sections that occur at various points throughout the piece, there is an underlying sense of striving forward and that everything is connected. The latter section of the work is hard-driven and exhilarating, especially after the ‘Fugato’ section starts at 17’14’’ which generates the latter half of the work. Despite all the finger twisting virtuosity leading to the wonderfully atmospheric and peaceful ending, when this appears, is perfectly judged and meticulously thought through. I have numerous recordings of this piece in my CD collection and this is certainly one of the best and most interesting.

Disc 2 begins with the formerly famous and frequently played Second Ballade (in B minor). This is a magnificent work and was also at one time, much admired but sadly these days, does not turn up often in recital. The opening is suitably sinister with chromatic runs in the left hand and the tune in the right. The work is a complex mixture of virtuosic sections and magnificent quieter interludes that seem to grow organically from what has come before. The transitions from one to the other are splendidly handled and the playing in both the louder and quieter parts is superb. Again, I am bowled over by the magnificent and poetic playing of Dr. Hamilton. The following tracks (numbers 2 – 5) are examples of Liszt’s late style, with sparse harmonies and abrupt changes of metre and key.  All are played with other-worldliness that fits perfectly with Liszt’s later sound world. 

Next is a much earlier work, the “Ave Maria” from the “Harmonies poétiques et religieuses”, played very fractionally faster than Saskia Giorgini’s version. This is beautifully played and phrased and is just a wonderfully pious little work. Track 7 is Liszt’s augmentation of probably the most famous of the Schubert Impromptus, the 3rd G flat major one from D899. As I have said before, Schubert tends to leave holes in his textures in piano writing – it is one of the things that makes his piano writing so difficult and unique. Liszt, being Liszt, decided to fill these in and add a little extra variation of the theme in the middle. This does not detract at all from the original and makes it even more lavish and to my ears closer in style to his own “Liebestraume”. Suffice it to say, that this is an excellent rendition of this lovely work. We return to introspective Liszt next, his melancholy little prelude based upon Bach’s “Weinen, klagen, Sorgen, Zagen”. Here, the playing is mysterious and somehow detached and this treatment works very well in this weird, fairly late work. Next follows a very late piece by Liszt, the famous “La lugubre gondola”. This is the so called first version of the work although, in reality, there are four versions for solo piano that show Liszt’s constant rethinking of the themes he originally set down after a premonition of the death of Richard Wagner. The work opens with a very melancholy theme which is repeated later in a major key, marking a respite from the sadness of the opening. After a loud climax comprised of a powerful statement of the opening theme, changed from a gentle rocking figuration to something far more sinister, the work returns to sadness for the ending that evaporates into the ether. By way of a complete contrast, we return to happier climes for track 10 – Romance “O pourquoi donc” (S.169), a truly beautiful little work that deserves to be better known. Liszt returned to this piece in his old age and revised it fully as the “Romance oubliée” (S.527), heard here as track 11. It is fascinating to compare the older man’s reflection on and reaction to a piece that he had originally composed some 32 years earlier.

Once facet of Liszt’s composing career which is not that often considered was his song writing ability – and he also arranged some of these for solo piano. Track 12 is one of these self-transcriptions, that of “Die Lorelei” (S.273), another work I’ve long admired. The original song of which it is a transcription is well worth hearing, too. The opening of this version is famous as it is basically the “Tristan” chord which Wagner ‘borrowed’ and later used extensively in Tristan und Isolde.  The work starts innocuously enough but the mounting terror as the Lorelei approach (in the middle) is perfectly captured.  I’ve played the following work in public, “In Festo Transfigurationis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi” (S.188, track 13) and it is not as easy as it sounds. It is typical late Liszt but with an emphasis on the religious side of his nature. The rippling right hand figurations are suitably ethereal and slowly make their way up the keyboard before disappearing, apparently up to Heaven. The final work presented here is Liszt’s masterly transcription of his friend and son-in-law Wagner’s last scene from Tristan und Isolde, linking perfectly with track 12. Liszt chose not to use the whole opening of Wagner’s score; he truncates it to just a handful of notes and this has to be judged correctly to set you up for the whole piece. That is not a problem here, as everything flows organically onwards. The vocal lines and orchestral textures are perfectly combined here and you can almost picture them singing along.  The middle section with the repeated chords and rippling accompaniment is superbly controlled. You can feel the work winding down before it builds up the tension, pace and virtuosity before the big statement of the theme at 4’24’’. This continues in an ever-increasing sense of agitation before the huge statement of the theme again at 5’19 where Hamilton wisely uses Liszt’s original text and not one of the several ossias that he suggests in the score. After that, the atmosphere thins, lightens and dissolves wonderfully into the night.

I thoroughly enjoyed this set – clearly a lot of thought went into programming these pieces. Hamilton is an excellent Lisztian who judges everything just about right. He has no issues about barnstorming when required but is equally at home in the later, more reflective works. Looking at my fellow reviewers’ comments on this, I am very hopeful that this is indeed the start of a whole series by this magnificent pianist. I should also say that this was one of my favourite CDs of 2022.

Jonathan Welsh

Previous reviews: John France (January 2022) ~ David McDade (February 2022)

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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Funérailles (Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173/7) (1849) [11:58]
Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173/3) (1851) [15:29]
Csárdás Macabre S.224 (1881-82) [7:12]
Pensée des Morts (Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173/4) (1834, rev.1851) [12:14]
Nuages Gris, S.199 (1881) [2:40]
Sonata in B minor, S.178 (1852-53) [27:23]
Ballade No 2 in B minor, S.171 (1853) [14:36]
En rêve (Nocturne), S.207 (1885) [2:09]
Abschied (Farewell): Russian Folksong, S.251 (1885) [2:30]
Elegie – Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth, S.534iii (c.1880) [6:08]
Dem Andenken Petofis, S.195 (1877) [3:36]
Ave Maria (Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173) (1846) [6:29]
Transcription by Liszt: after Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Impromptu in G-flat major, S.565b (1840) [6:19]
Prelude on Weinen, klagen, Sorgen, Zagen S.179 (1859) [5:43]
La Lugubre Gondola, S.200 (1884-5) [4:21]
Romance “O pourquoi donc,” S.169 (1848) [3:21]
Romance Oubliée, S.527 (1880) [3:28]
Die Lorelei, S.273 (1856) [6:29]
In Festo Transfigurationis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, S.188 (1880) [2:31]

Transcription by Liszt: after Richard WAGNER (1813-83)
Isoldens Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, S.447 (1867) [7:11]