Liszt Orchestral Songs Aparté

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Orchestral Songs
Sunhae Im (soprano); Thomas Hampson (baritone); Stephanie Houtzeel (mezzo-soprano); Tomasz Konieczny (baritone)
Chorus Viennensis
Orchester Wiener Akademie/Martin Haselböck
rec. 2021/22 Lisztzentrum, Raiding, Austria 
No sung texts provided
Aparté AP324 [66]

This album comprises of eleven of Liszt’s orchestral songs. According to the booklet notes, five are previously unrecorded: Der DoppelgangerDie VätergruftWeimars TotenLe Juif errant and Der Titan. In recent times, recital programmes of art song or Lieder often contain works by Schubert, Schumann, Richard Strauss, Mahler, Wolf and Brahms, whereas Liszt’s Lieder are heard less often.   

Liszt is most famous for his solo piano works and symphonic poems; compared with his huge compositional output, his endeavours with the Lied were no more than mere distractions – yet he clearly relished the intimacy of communication song writing allowed. He wrote some ninety or so Lieder for voice and piano, mostly to German texts. I recall writing some years ago that Liszt’s Lieder do not always make an immediate impact, but repeated listening can provide many rewards.

Liszt was one of the first Lieder composers to write for voice and orchestra, employing the form widely known as the orchestral song. These works were too large for the salon and were designed for the concert hall. The notes mention that Liszt wrote sixteen orchestral songs. In my view, they fall into three categories: original orchestral songs, orchestrations of his own Lieder and orchestrations of Schubert’s Lieder.

Martin Haselböck conducts four soloists of different voice types here; South Korean lyric soprano Sunhae Im has three songs, all after Schubert. Her performance Die junge Nonne (The young nun), composed to a setting of a text by Craigher de Jachelutta, is especially enjoyable. This music, depicting howling gales and torrential rain, reflecting the stormy anguish the heroine is experiencing with her faith. Sunhae’s fresh-sounding voice of clarity and glowing tone adeptly conveys the emotional state of the protagonist, who overcomes her doubts to choose heaven. 

Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny has one orchestral song, Der Titan – Auf des Athos blauen Felsenspitzen(The Titan – on the rocky blue peaks of Athos). This setting of Franz von Schober’s text concerns the creation myth of the Titan Athos. Konieczny is accompanied by the male voiced Chorus Viennensis, who sing ardently in a worthy performance. Opening with a drum roll, Der Titan with its heavy brass writing, reminds me at times of a Wagnerian opera scene. It is an intensely dramatic work and Konieczny displays convincing, boldly expressive singing. 

There is also a single orchestral song, the justly famous Die Lorelei performed by Stephanie Houtzeel, a lyric mezzo-soprano from Kessel, Germany. Its text is by Heinrich Heine and is based on a German folk legend about a Rhine boatman distracted by the spectacle and singing of Lorelei, an enchanting, golden-haired maiden who lures him to his death. In her passionate interpretation and adept storytelling, Houtzeel achieves her high notes with relative ease.   

With six orchestral songs, celebrated American baritone Thomas Hampson is the featured singer on this album. Now in his late sixties, Hampson has had a tremendously successful career and is still an active performer. In his prime, he was often described as having a ‘mellow’ tone. I wouldn’t apply that adjective today; as one might expect, it has hardened and some minor unsteadiness is evident. Nonetheless, he sings well, interpreting the text most effectively and still making a significant impact. Especially engaging is the drama he produces in Le Juif errant (The Wandering Jew) Liszt’s setting of a French text by Pierre-Jean de Béranger. This is a version of the legend where the Jewish stranger is unwilling to assist Christ during the Crucifixion and is cursed to wander the land until the Second Coming. 

This album was recorded in the pleasing acoustic of the Lisztzentrum concert hall in Raiding, Liszt’s birthplace. The solo voices and the period instruments, especially the resonant brass with striking orchestral climaxes, are all splendidly captured. The major drawback of this album is the absence of sung texts and translations. There is, however, a reasonably informative essay in the booklet written by Klaus Aringer. 

The Orchester Wiener Akademie, conducted by its musical director and founder Martin Haselböck, perform using period instruments. Haselböck directs highly engaging performances of considerable drama in a genre that deserves to be back in favour.

Michael Cookson

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1. Die Lorelei, S.369 – Stephanie Houtzeel (mezzo-soprano)
2. Die drei Zigeuner, S.374 – Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Lieder by Franz Schubert, S.375
3. Die junge Nonne, S.375/1 (after Schubert) – Sunhae Im (soprano)
4. Gretchen am Spinnrade, S.375/2 (after Schubert) – Sunhae Im (soprano)
5. Lied der Mignon, S.375/3 (after Schubert) – Sunhae Im (soprano)
6. Erlkönig, S.375/4 (after Schubert) – Thomas Hampson (baritone)
7. Der Doppelganger, S.375/5* (after Schubert) – Thomas Hampson (baritone)
8. Die Vätergruft, S.371* – Thomas Hampson (baritone)
9. Weimars Toten, S.303* – Thomas Hampson (baritone)
10. Le Juif errant, S.300* – Thomas Hampson (baritone)
11. Der Titan (Auf des Athos blauen Felsenspitzen), S.79/2* – Tomasz Konieczny (bass-baritone) and Chorus Viennensis.

Thomas Hampson, baritone (tracks 2, 6-10) – Recorded October 2021
Sunhae Im, (soprano (tracks 3-5) – Recorded October 2022
Stephanie Houtzeel, mezzo-soprano (track 1) – Recorded October 2022
Tomasz Konieczny, bass-baritone (track 11) – Recorded October 2022
Chorus Viennensis (track 11) – Recorded October 2022

* World premiere recording (Liszt Academy Edition)