Liszt vol2 PFCD21011

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

For anyone who has encountered the first volume in what I hope is a long, long series of recordings, the words “Kenneth Hamilton plays Liszt Volume 2” will be sufficient to have them reaching for their wallet. For those as yet unfamiliar with the Hamilton magic in this music, one important fact should be born in mind: the dazzling effect of his music making is often in inverse proportion to how inviting it looks on paper. Take the opening track. Who needs a Liszt arrangement of the entire overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser now that recording has long since made its full orchestral glory available at the press of a button? I even thought that and I am totally sold on Hamilton’s Liszt! What you get is one of the greatest audio pleasures of the year. Grandeur, eroticism, wild excitement and substance – how Hamilton pulls it all together is a mystery but one I can only urge you to sample.

The academic in Hamilton has dug deep into the performance tradition of Liszt’s music and what he has uncovered is little short of a complete change of direction. In Hamilton’s hands, this music – and remember everything on this generously filled pair of discs is a transcription of some sort – acquires substance I for one never suspected before. We know from contemporary accounts that Liszt’s own playing was as renowned for its poetry as its pyrotechnics and that forms the foundation of Hamilton’s playing. There is plenty of brilliance but somehow it seems less facile, less show for its own sake. Instead of a feeding on the music of other composers like some kind of musical parasite, what we hear on this second volume is Liszt’s deep love and understanding of the music he transcribed. More than that there is a veritable mania in these transcriptions for getting the listening public to love it as much as Liszt did.

Liszt is often criticised for a cavalier approach to the work of other composers – criticisms rooted in some sniffy comments from the perpetually disappointed Chopin – yet time again Liszt reveals himself as sensitive to the essence of each composer. Recently performers have been coming back to what might be termed a Viennese Schubert after years of the emphasis firmly placed on existential angst and it is this Viennese Schubert we hear in Liszt’s confection of waltzes entitled Soirées de Vienne. To balance out the picture – Hamilton is equally a master at curating these programmes – we get Liszt’s grand, gloomy, Romantic recasting of the famous Ständchen, complete with his very late last thoughts on this early arrangement in the form of a cadential flourish as if to demonstrate that once a virtuoso, always a virtuoso. Hamilton’s performance belies what we might assume is a high Romantic enterprise – the rubato is subtle rather than splashy, the decorations fantastical rather showboating. But neither is it too severe as if determined with furrowed brow to lecture us into agreeing that Liszt is a “great composer”. He knows that Liszt was an entertainer.

All of this is the product of Hamilton tracking down Liszt’s own advice on playing his music as well as studying the performance practice of his pupils – sometimes including variants to the published score gleaned from listening to recordings by those of his pupils who survived into the recording era such as the Scot, Frederick Lamond.

Hamilton’s scholarship never gets in the way of the music, indeed most of it adds relish to an already sumptuous many course banquet. As the Schubert waltzes exemplify, like Liszt, he always knows when his audience are in need of some light relief like a palette cleansing sorbet.

That scholarship does mean that we get rarities such as the obscure Danish Belgian composer, Eduard Lassen not to mention a transcription of a piece by the rather better known but not as a composer, Hans von Bülow. Showing just how far Liszt always was ahead of the curve, the penultimate track features a song by Clara Schumann given a consummately delicate treatment. It is almost as if, in encountering those piano legends, Liszt was determined to assert his primacy. The Bülow is a masterly exercise in scoring for the piano. Nothing too flash but just enough wizardry to flesh out the picture in the most vivid colours.

Anchoring the second CD are the big Verdi paraphrases respectively, from best known to least, Rigoletto, Aida and Ernani, supplemented with some Meyerbeer. The delectable arrangement of the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin reminds us how broad Liszt’s enthusiasms were.

Programmed in the middle of these big showpieces, even the third of the Liebesträume is heard afresh as a transcription of the original song which is largely forgotten so effective has that transcription proved to be. It is typical of Hamilton’s deft approach to programming that he finds a way of making even the most hackneyed pieces sound fresh.

Whilst bereft of the big beasts of the Liszt canon that filled the first volume of this series, Hamilton has pulled off a considerable coup in finding a new and invigorating way to present this trickiest of corners of Liszt’s output in a way that can help the modern listener to grasp why this music was such a big deal at the time. But more than that, this is a set that allows Liszt to woo, wow and seduce us all over again.

David McDade

Previous reviews: John France (August 2023) ~ Rob Challinor (October 2023)

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Richard Wagner (1813-1883)/Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Overture to Tannhäuser
Richard Wagner/Franz Liszt
Song to the Evening Star from Tannhäuser
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)/Franz Liszt
Soirées de Vienne
Leise flehen meine Lieder (with late cadenza)
Richard Wagner/Franz Liszt
Am stillen Herd from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Eduard Lassen (1830-1904)/Franz Liszt
Ich weil’in tiefer Einsamkeit
Löse, Himmel, meine Seele
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)/Franz Liszt
Auf Flügeln des Gesanges
Richard Wagner/Franz Liszt
Spinning Song from Der fliegende Holländer
Charles Gounod (1818-1893)/Franz Liszt
Hymn to St Cecilia
Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)/Franz Liszt
Polonaise from Eugene Onegin
Hans von Bülow (1830-1894)/Franz Liszt
Dante’s Sonnet
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)/Franz Liszt
Rigoletto Paraphrase
Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864)
Illustration No.1 from L’Africaine
Giuseppe Verdi/Franz Liszt
Aida Paraphrase
Franz Liszt
3 Liebesträume
Giuseppe Verdi/Franz Liszt
Ernani Paraphrase
Clara Schumann (1819-1896)/Franz Liszt
Geheimes Flüstern hier und dort
Charles Gounod/Franz Liszt
Waltz from Faust