FRANZ LIZST: Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo; Totentanz for piano and orchestra; Die Trauer-Gondel No. 2 (orchestration by John Adams); Die Trauer-Gondel No. 1; Recueillement; Sursum corda; Es ist genug – Claudius Tanski, piano/ Beethoven Orchester Bonn/ Stefan Blunier – Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm, multichannel SACD (2+2+2) MDG 937 1678-6, 63:58 [Distr. by E1] ****:
This program features orchestral and solo piano music from two distinct periods in Liszt’s creative life, the pieces linked by a common theme: the contemplation of mortality. In the earlier works, Tasso and Totentanz, that contemplation could be called academic. After all, when they were penned in 1849, Liszt had recently linked up with the second of his live-in loves, Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, who convinced him to give up concertizing for composing. And just the year before, Liszt had become Kapellmeister at Weimar, where he would exert even more influence on European music over the next thirteen or so years. So at the time, Liszt was at the height of his considerable powers; thoughts of physical decline should have been alien to him. But then from a young age he had been fascinated by death and its religious connections. Thus in Liszt’s mind, the verso of the page titled Death was Salvation, and this association informed much of his music.
Tasso was written as an overture to Goethe’s play by the same name produced in during the poet’s centenary year. It’s based on an earlier piano piece by Liszt which, in turn, is based on a theme he had heard sung by gondoliers in Venice. Being an especially busy guy, as well as somewhat limited in his knowledge of orchestration at the time, Liszt farmed the overture out to a colleague to orchestrate. Later it was revised and reorchestrated by Liszt, appearing in final form in 1854. The piece is in two large sections, an Adagio mesto in C minor, corresponding to the lament of the title, and an Allegro molto e con brio in C major. Along the way, there is a brief interlude in waltz rhythm that portrays the life of wine, women, and song that the poet Torquato Tasso enjoyed as a celebrity in Ferrara before his descent into madness, from which he never fully recovered. He spent seven years in an insane asylum at Ferrara and then wandered Italy almost as a vagabond before what was to have been his final triumph: coronation by the pope as the king of poets thanks to his early masterpiece, La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Liberated), a tale of the Crusades that inspired operas by composers from Handel to Dvořák. Except that poor Tasso died before he received the poet’s laurel wreath.
Tasso is bombastic in the manner of most of Liszt’s tone poems, but it also artfully displays Liszt’s signature technique: thematic transformation, by which the Venetian boat song undergoes a series of ingenious metamorphoses.
As with what would eventually be Tasso, Liszt worked on the Totentanz over a number of years starting in the 1830s; a two-piano arrangement appeared as late as 1865. The piece features a series of variations, in thematic transformation fashion, of the plainchant Dies irae. Liszt’s inspiration originated with Berlioz’s treatment of the theme in his Symphonie fantastique. Francesco Traini’s fresco The Triumph or Death in Pisa and meditations on the Black Death by medieval artists such as Holbein and Bosch further ignited Liszt’s imagination. His work is, by turns, macabre, contemplative, and grotesque almost to the point of black comedy. It’s an incredible knuckle-buster for the pianist as well. I heard pianist Olga Kern play the work together with the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto in Nashville this spring, a feat that unfortunately ended up causing her to cancel engagements in Denver soon after.
Fast-forward thirty years or so, and we come to the now-ailing Liszt contemplating death in sober piano works whose chromaticism is so radical they sound like they belong to the next century. In the two pieces named Die Trauer-Gondel or La lugubre gondola, the gondola of the title passes over the dark waters of death, where a mere surface sheen illuminates another possible reality. John Adams’s orchestration of the first piece captures this sheen nicely in writing for the harps; otherwise, the orchestral palette is appropriately muted, reminiscent of the 1880s rather than the 1980s. That other possible reality for Liszt is explored in a work of the same period: the radiantly hopeful Sursum corda (“Lift up Your Hearts”), which refers to part of the responsory Eucharistic prayer of the Catholic Church.
All this music and the program behind it are well served by the current performances. Stefan Blunier takes care to delineate the contrasting moods in the first work, from the drooping lament of the opening to the swagger of Tasso’s triumph, the little waltz at the heart of the piece sounding especially dainty and beguiling. Blunier and the orchestra bring the requisite fireworks to Totentanz, but this is Claudius Tanski’s time to shine, and he approaches the work with cyclonic energy and digits of steel. He does just as well by the somber chromatic play of light and shade in the late solo pieces.
Appropriate, too, is the CD cover, Dutch watercolorist Herman Henstenburgh’s Vanitasstilleben (Vanitas Still Life), which depicts a skull and hourglass festooned with roses, marigolds, and morning glories. The only improvement I could wish for has to do with the sound, which features some odd perspectives. Tanski’s piano and the raucous percussion (cymbals, snare drum, triangle) are thrillingly front and center, but the orchestra seems backwardly placed, with a resultant loss of immediacy. This probably has something to do with the venue, as other MD&G recordings of the Beethoven Orchester Bonn exhibit the same traits. Still, there’s enough to like about this recording for me to give it a thumbs up. If the program is of interest, by all means seek this one out.
A 10-year anniversary of Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society gets a welcome vinyl upgrade.