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 [74+73]
The first volume of Kenneth Hamilton’s survey of Franz Liszt’s piano music, Death and Transfiguration, was reviewed here. Salon and Stage now follows. To explain how Hamilton approaches this music,let me quote from the record company’s webpage: “He has sought out Liszt’s oft-ignored recommendations on their interpretation and studied the reminiscences and recordings of his students. He has, in effect, tried to think like a Liszt pupil, and to immerse himself in a performance tradition that goes well beyond the printed text.”
Kenneth Hamilton penned the liner notes (which I hereby acknowledge with gratitude, and from which I quote freely). He writes: “If […] all the scores of 19th century opera and song were to vanish […] then the arrangements made by Franz Liszt would still preserve some of their finest passages.” His scores balance originality and creativity. They “effectively constitute original works in their own right”.
The contents of this programme can be variously grouped: Wagner, Schubert, Verdi, and then the rest, including Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Gounod, and Eduard Lassen.
The Overture to Tannhäuser balances a “straight forward” pianistic transcription of the score with a couple of cadenzas. The Song to the Evening Star has a dreamy conclusion in a “languidly chromatic”. Liszt wrote to Wagner: “As to the former, I believe that it will meet with few executants capable of mastering its technical difficulties, but the scene of the Abendstern should be within the reach of second-class pianists [!]”. The next bit of Wagner is Am stillen Herd from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, not a straight arrangement but more of an improvisation. It is heart-rendingly beautiful. Equally gorgeous is the wayward Spinning Song from The Flying Dutchman, with its “sparklingly iridescent” ending.
There are nine Soirées de Vienne, arrangements of Schubert’s eminently playable waltzes. The sixth has long been a favourite of pianists and concertgoers. Liszt subjected it to various revisions. Hamilton’s recording conflates the 1879 and 1882 versions. At just over ten minutes, it is a sheer joy. The other Schubert arrangement here is the Ständchen: Leise flehen meine Lieder (My songs fly softly through the night to you), the fourth number of Schubert’s Schwanengesang.
Eduard Lassen, a Danish/Belgian composer, succeeded Liszt as Kapellmeister at Weimar. Barely recalled today, his Six Lieder were dedicated to the master. Liszt made concert arrangements of two of the songs, “Ich weil’ in tiefer Einsamkeit” and “Löse, Himmel, meine Seele”. Hamilton explains that in this version Liszt made “a subtle, improvisatory transition between the songs, marrying them musically together”. These lovely rarities deserve to be better known. Liszt’s arrangement of Mendelssohn’s On the Wings of Song is a potboiler.
There are several arrangements of music from Giuseppe Verdi’s operas. First up is the popular Rigoletto Paraphrase de concert, based on the famous Act 3 quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore” between Rigoletto, Gilda, the Duke and Maddalena. The liner notes sum up Aida Paraphrase (Danza sacra e Duetto finale) as “encompassing the priests’ hymn to their god Phtha, the temple dances and the opera’s unforgettable final duet”. But Liszt has been very creative in the last section. He presents “an ecstatic Wagnerian love-death for which we will search the opera’s original score in vain”. The last Verdi offering here is the Ernani Paraphrase based on the King of Spain’s aria O Sommo Carlo and the chorus at Charlemagne’s tomb. The original music is presented in complex pianistic terms, complete with a dramatic coda and intricate cadenzas.
The Polonaise from Eugene Onegin is full of sparkle and wit in a souped-up version of Tchaikovsky’s well-known melody. Less well-known in its original incarnation is Hans von Bülow’s Dante Sonnet “Tanto gentile e tanto onesta” (How kind and honest my lady looks). Liszt’s seductive arrangement is a straightforward repristination of the tune. It is a truly romantic piece in the “love and affection” meaning of the word.
Liszt wrote two Illustrations from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s posthumous opera L’Africaine, of which the first we get here. The liner notes explain that this is a fantasia on the Prière de Matelots from Act 3 rather than a direct transcription. It is by turns stormy and meditative.
Clara Schumann’s “Geheimes Flüstern hier und dort” (Secret Whispers here and there) is the tenth number of Liszt’s Zehn Lieder von Robert und Clara Schumann. It is a short, restrained transcription of the third song from Schumann’s Six Lieder from Jucunde Op. 23 to a pantheistic poem by Hermann Rollett (1819–1904).
Charles Gounod is represented here by two transcriptions: the Hymn to St Cecilia and the Waltz from Faust. The former is a “luxuriously re-upholstered [hymn to the saint] which is nearly twice the length of Gounod’s unassuming original, and of considerably greater sophistication”. The second is a reworking of the original Waltz in sonata form, complete with an interpolated middle section reminiscent of the moment when Faust met Gretchen. I have never been a fan of Gounod, but in Liszt’s hands he becomes a giant!
It is also good to have some “self-transcriptions” – the three Liebesträume, originally settings of texts by Ludwig Uhland and Ferdinand Freiligrath. Liszt transformed them into “luscious nocturnes”. The first and second are rarely performed, the third is ubiquitous. Little more need be said.
The booklet is superlative. Kenneth Hamilton’s long essay, which introduces the repertoire, is not surprising. In 1989, he defended his doctoral dissertation The Opera Fantasias, and Transcriptions of Franz Liszt; A Critical Study. The gatefold cover shows a stage design by Heinrich Maximilian Bruckner for Act 3 of Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The track listing includes the “S” numbers (given to each work by the English composer and scholar, Humphrey Searle). This allows the listener to determine exactly what version of these pieces are being played. I would have liked also to see the dates in the track listing.
This is an album to explore slowly. I assessed it by working through the arrangements by composer, but the actual batting order does make a varied and satisfying recital.
I have not had an opportunity to contrast and compare Kenneth Hamilton’s performance of the works in Salon and Stage with the two main contenders in this repertoire. I have occasionally dipped into Leslie Howard’s magisterial Liszt: Complete Piano Music on the Hyperion label, and into the massive multi-artist sixty-volume series on Naxos. The listeners will also be aware that many other pianists have recorded much of this repertoire. My reaction to Hamilton’s superb playing is an appreciation of the hugely diverse emotional effect of these pieces, and a sense of the numinous which should always be present in Liszt’s music. One must not overlook the sheer technical wizardry: Kenneth Hamilton fully satisfies my expectations.
I understand that Volume 3 will include Book 3 of Années de pèlerinage and associated pieces such as À la Chapelle Sixtine. A further volume planned, Demonic and Divine, may incorporate the Mephisto Waltzes, the St Francis Legends, and so on.
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Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Overture to Tannhäuser, S442 (1848)
“Song to the Evening Star” from Tannhäuser, S444 (1849)
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Soirée de Vienne, No.6 (revised version), S427/6ii/6b (1879/1883)
“Leise flehen meine Lieder” (with late cadenza) (S560/7a) (1880)
“Am stillen Herd” from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, S448 (1871)
Eduard Lassen (1830-1904)
“Ich weil’ in tiefer Einsamkeit” S495 (1872)
“Löse, Himmel, meine Seele” S494/2 (1872)
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
“Auf Flügeln des Gesanges” S547/1 (1840)
“Spinning Song” from Der fliegende Holländer S440 (1860)
Charles Gounod (1818-93)
Hymn to St Cecilia S491(1866)
Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Polonaise from Eugene Onegin S429 (1879)
Hans von Bülow (1830-1894)
Dante’s Sonnet S479 (1874)
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Rigoletto Paraphrase S434 (1855-1859?)
Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864)
“Illustration” No.1 from L’Africaine S415/1 (1865)
Aida Paraphrase S436 (1876?)
Liebesträume No.1, “Hohe Liebe” S541/1 (1850)
Liebesträume No.2, “Seliger Tod” S541/2 (1850)
Liebesträume No.3, “O Lieb” S541/3 (1850)
Ernani Paraphrase S432 (1859)
Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
“Geheimes Flüstern hier und dort” S569/10 (1874)
Waltz from Faust S407 (1861)
Franz Liszt arranged all the other composers’ pieces here.