Liszt vol2 PFCD21011

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Volume 2: Salon and Stage
Kenneth Hamilton (piano)
rec. 2019-22, Cardiff University School of Music, Wales
Prima Facie PFCD210/11 [2 CDs: 147]

For much of his life Liszt would have considered salon and stage to be a second home and Ken Hamilton’s second Liszt album honours this with a recital that comprehensively explores Liszt’s own place in those settings and his re-imaginings of the music of many others who shared that world. Hamilton discusses this in his detailed and it must be said hugely entertaining notes, explaining the diverse nature of the way that Liszt approached music for transcription be that of others or of his own compositions; the three Liebesträume, settings of his own songs are included here. So we have literal transcriptions, albeit with individual touches in the form of mini cadenzas or harmonic retouching right up to his paraphrases, fantasies that sum up or even expand upon an opera, or part thereof, in virtuoso fashion.

The evening begins with an overture and not just any overture; this is the spectacular transcription of the overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser, the kind of transcription that makes you realise why most piano versions of the piece involve two pianists. Hamilton gives the kind of red-bloodied and fearless performance that lets you know that you are in for a great night’s entertainment. Wagner makes more appearances; the sparkling Spinning Song from The Flying Dutchman and arias from Tannhäuser and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Hamilton doesn’t erase memories of Egon Petri’s magical recording of the Spinning Song but he is graceful and alert to the piece’s light-hearted nature and the pedalling in the brief slow motif passages makes the most of the träumend marking. Liszt retains Wagner’s sparse and delicate textures for the O du mein holder Abendstern transcription and seems to be doing the same for Am stillen Herd before changing tack and launching into a grand fantasy. From the outset he decorates the melody, only gentle turns at first but then mini cadenzas, then extended passages until he seems to lose himself in his passion for the work and pretty soon the keyboard rings to octaves and arpeggios, trills that encompass the entire range and a glorious passage in D flat major, where the left hand sings the melody over tranquil arabesques. All gloriously virtuoso stuff but this is a more mature Liszt and he never loses sight of the essence of the melody within the figuration. Neither does Hamilton it must be said and he finds plenty of dynamic and dramatic contrast throughout. Staying with opera there are favourites such as the Rigoletto paraphrase and the waltz from Gounod’s Faust though listeners will notice the final few bars of the former are not quite what Liszt wrote; Hamilton has ever so slightly altered them, tastefully it must be said and, let’s face it, endings were never Liszt’s strong point. The Rigoletto was published alongside the miserere from Il Trovatore and the less often heard Ernani paraphrase; the former will appear in a future volume but the Ernani work, based on the Act III finale O sommo Carlo is here in all its impassioned glory. The delicate harp of the original is darker hued in Liszt’s version and extended cadenzas and octave passages spring from the chorus parts. There are also the side stepping harmonies so typical of Liszt in his transcriptions. Less familiar is the Danza sacre e duetto finale from Verdi’s Aida and even more so the transcription of the Sailors’ Prayer from Act 3 of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, coincidentally a work I first heard in a recital given by Hamilton some thirty years ago. Liszt’s imagination was fired by this short chorus, under three minutes, and produced this nine minute extravaganza whose dramatic range far outstrips the rather restrained original. The five single tolling bells in the opera become a fantasy themselves, growing harmonically and dynamically and the unaccompanied male chorus O grand San Dominique reaches huge a huge stormy climax in the middle section. It’s a glorious transcription that is Liszt to a tee and deserves to be better known. Quite often I have heard a Liszt transcription before the original; the Rigoletto paraphrase is one example and I remember being quite disappointed when I first heard the vocal version – where was that glorious B double flat in the melody or the juicy chord in the previous bar? The Tchaikowsky Onegin polonaise was another and I was convinced for a while that Liszt made more of the work than Tchaikowsky had. In both cases I have grown to appreciate the originals for the classics they are but I still think that the latter is a marvellous creation with nary a note out of place.

Liszt makes an equal impact in the salon and furnished us with a host of wonderful transcriptions that proudly stand alongside the originals. Liszt’s third Liebestraum and Schubert’s Leise flehen meine Lieder are perhaps the most familiar recorded here though for the latter Hamilton uses a late version including an arabesque of a cadenza at the end, also recently recorded by Mariam Batsashvili (Warner Classics review); I have to say that Hamilton charms as much as Batsashvili. Charm also oozes from three unfamiliar songs; firstly two songs by Danish born Eduard Lassen who Liszt recommended to the post of court music director in Weimar, a post he held from 1858 to 1895. Lassen’s 6 Lieder von peter Cornelius were dedicated to Liszt and he transcribed the third, Löse, Himmel, meine Seele in 1861 and added the fourth, Ich weil’ in tiefer Einsamkeit in 1872 with a revised version of the third. It is this later version that Hamilton plays. I can’t be sure without seeing a score of Lassen’s original but I will hazard a guess that these concert transcriptions are vastly expanded versions of the songs; anyone who loves the third liebestraum could not but love the gorgeously melodious Löse, Himmel, meine Seele with its even more ferocious challenges and moments of the utmost delicacy. Both songs would make great recital pieces. The transcription of Dante’s Sonnet – tanto gentile e tanto onesta, a Mendelssohnian song by Liszt’s one time son-in-law Hans von Bülow is quite delicate and certainly captivating and in something of a departure from all this drama Hamilton plays Liszt’s touchingly simple arrangement of Clara Schumann’s Geheimes Flüstern hier und dort that is more in the nature of Clara’s transcriptions of her husband’s songs.

Through my decades of collecting historical recordings I began to wonder if there was some unwritten rule that pianists MUST record the A flat Liebestraum – 49 versions were recorded between 1908 and 1931 when Stanislas Niedzielski rebelled and recorded the second. Hamilton generously gives us all three; in these and indeed in all of the songs here he displays a warm and generous singing tone and is passionate without ostentation. Still in the salon Hamilton plays the most popular of Liszt’s nine Soirées de Vienne, modelled on Schubert’s short dances but as with other pieces here we are in for a few surprises; Hamilton has made a personal version of the piece based on additions that Liszt wrote for his pupil Sophie Mentor in 1869 and for a new edition in 1882 so there are unfamiliar turns of phrase and harmony in every part of the waltz and what a delight that is. The final work is Gounod’s Hymn to St. Cecilia, which ends disc one as his Faust waltz completes disc two. I heard this transcription many years ago but it is only in reviewing this recital that I discovered that the original is an instrumental work for solo violin, harp, winds and double bass and not the vocal chorus that I imagined. It is pleasantly melodic in its original form, pleasant and inoffensive but Liszt weaves his magic and creates something of a miniature tone poem with its arpeggios turned into a quicksilver left hand accompaniment right through to its grand climactic passages, fff con somme passione and with liberal use of the three hand effect throughout. It out-fantasies any of Thalberg’s operatic fantaisies and it is a shame it mostly languishes unheard.

The first volume of Kenneth Hamilton’s Liszt (review ~ review ~ review) was very well received and on the strength of this second double CD one can hear why. He knows when to storm and when to reflect and there is impressive playing of the utmost delicacy; it is not hard to find grandeur and bravura in Liszt’s writing but in many pieces there is actually more lyrical and contemplative writing – the Hymn to St. Cecilia is just one example here – and Hamilton balances these moments perfectly. This is a cracking disc in great sound, a marvellous blend of the familiar an unfamiliar or, as Hamilton’s playing convinces us, the why-on-earth-is-this-unfamiliar? I note that Prima Facie have taken note of John France’s review and have included Searle numbers in the booklet track listing though no dates; I have added them from the index in the complete Liszt booklet.

More Liszt is promised; the booklet mentions the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique and, off topic but sounding very interesting, an album of Romantic Handel.

Rob Challinor

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Previous review: John France (August 2023)

All transcriptions by Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Richard Wagner (1813-1881)
Overture to Tannhäuser S.442 (1848)
Song to the Evening Star from Tannhäuser S.444 (1849)
Am stillen Herd from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg S.448 (1871)
Spinning Song from Der fliegende Höllander S.440 (1860)
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Soirée de Vienne No.6 revised version S.427 No.6ii (1862/1879)
Ständchen – Leise flehen meine Lieder S.560 No.7a with late cadenza (c.1880)
Eduard Lassen (1830-1904)
Ich weil’ in tiefer Einsamkeit S.494 No.2 (1872)
Löse, Himmel, meine Seele S.495 (1872)
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Auf Flügeln des Gesanges S.547 No.1 (1840)
Charles Gounod (1818-1893)
Hymn to St. Cecilia S.491 (1866)
Waltz from Faust S.407 (1861)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikowsky (1840-1893)
Polonaise from Eugene Onegin S.429 (1879)
Hans von Bülow (1830-1894)
Dante’s Sonnet S.479 (1874)
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Rigoletto paraphrase S.434 (1859)
Aida paraphrase S.436 (1879)
Ernani paraphrase S.432 (1859)
Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864)
Illustration No.1 from L’Africaine S.415 No.1 (1865)
Clara Schumann (1819-1896) (pub.1872)
Geheimes Flüstern hier und dort S.569 No.10
Franz Liszt
Three Liebesträume S.541 (c.1850)