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 Recording of the Week  Franz Liszt

I decided several months ago that I would write an article on Liszt this week. It seemed an obvious time to do it as the two hundredth anniversary of his birth was just two days ago (on 22nd October), and I thought that leaving it until now would allow me to consider the many new releases which have come out in this anniversary year. The problem is I hadn’t anticipated quite how many new releases there would be this year, the sheer quantity of music which Liszt wrote, and actually how little of it I really knew!

Ferencz (Franz) Liszt
Ferencz (Franz) Liszt

During the nineteenth century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt became renowned throughout Europe as a virtuoso of the piano: one of most technically advanced pianists of his age, and probably one of the greatest of all time. He wrote an almost unbelievable amount of music for his instrument – more than Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Mendelssohn and Schumann combined – and it is generally marked by its technical difficulty.

But while primarily associated with the piano, it wasn’t just piano music that Liszt wrote. He also composed a number of original songs and, through his symphonic poems, made a significant contribution to development of programmatic music and the idea of extended single movement orchestral works. There is also a small amount of chamber music, some choral works and some organ works.

So, with such a vast amount of music, literally hundreds of new and re-packaged recordings and so little space, I thought the best thing to do was to pick a small handful of standout releases which cover the main areas of his compositions and are artistically some of the finest in their class.

First up then the piano music. This is the most difficult as there have been so many outstanding discs this year and I’ve enjoyed many of them, but the one which I’ve come back to several times is that of the young French pianist Lise de la Salle. It was released back in May and is unusual in that it provides a collection of works which are at once both eclectic and fairly representative. Large-scale compositions like the Ballade No. 2 and Funérailles are paired with much shorter pieces like Nuages gris and a few transcriptions and arrangements. Transcriptions are a hugely important part of Liszt’s legacy and here you can hear, amongst others, his arrangements of Isolde’s Liebestod by Wagner and Ständchen by Franz Schubert.

Lise de la Salle is completely in command of the technical challenges while alive to both the subtleties of phrasing and the raw excitement of the more powerful moments. As Gramophone pointed out when they gave this disc an Editor’s Choice last month, everything is given time to “speak, to weep and sing and sigh” (part of Liszt’s own definition of a true virtuoso).

For the two Piano Concertos I’ve been enjoying a new recording from Stephen Hough. He seems to get just the right balance of bravura, muscle and abandon with spontaneity, lightness and wit. He is well supported by the Bergen Philharmonic under Andrew Litton and, released next week, I think this is likely to be one of our best-sellers in the run up to Christmas.

Liszt wrote about seventy songs over a forty-five year period, mainly in French and German. But perhaps surprisingly they remain for the most part outside the mainstream of recital programming, despite have been previously championed by singers like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Here to try and do something about that is the German soprano Diana Damrau with a whole disc of the composer’s songs due to be released early next month. Damrau brings her customary silvery and very expressive soprano voice while offering some really beautiful and delicate moments.

Finally I’d like to mention a couple of box sets which both wrap up the orchestral and other areas of Liszt’s work as well as provide some compelling and sometimes legendary recordings of his piano works at very attractive prices.

The Sony box “Franz Liszt: Master And Magician” includes 25 CDs plus bonus DVD ("Horowitz Plays Liszt"). The First Concerto is with Artur Rubinstein, the second is with Van Cliburn, while the piano works are provided by pianists including Claudio Arrau, Emanuel Ax, Evgeny Kissin and Murray Perahia. Leonard Bernstein and Claudio Abbado feature amongst the conductors of the orchestral works and there are some older recordings as well including Sergei Rachmaninov playing the same Schubert song transcription mentioned earlier.

The 34-disc Deutsche Grammophon “Liszt Collection” contains some of the most famous recordings on disc. Krystian Zimerman is the soloist in the Concertos while Lazar Berman plays the Années de pèlerinage. Elsewhere there is a nice mixture of old and new with legendary names like Jorge Bolet and Claudio Arrau mixed in with one of DG’s current young stars, Alice Sara Ott.

Lise de la Salle plays Liszt

Lise de la Salle (piano)

Available Formats: MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Grieg & Liszt: Piano Concertos

Stephen Hough (piano), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Litton

Available Format: CD

Liszt: Songs

Diana Damrau (soprano) & Helmut Deutsch (piano)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Liszt: Master and Magician

CDs plus bonus DVD: "Horowitz Plays Liszt". A great collection of piano and symphonic masterworks alongside essential chamber music, choral works, and music for organ.

Available Format: 25 CDs

The Liszt Collection

CDs Divided into six musical-genre sections, the box covers the range of Liszt’s vast oeuvre like no other box on the market.

Available Formats: MP3, CD Quality FLAC