LISZT arr. LEÓ WEINER: Sonata in B Minor; WEINER: Preludio, Notturno e Scherzo diabolico; Passacaglia; Toy Soldiers – North Hungarian Symphony Orchestra, Miskolc / László Kovács – Hungaroton Classic HCD 32634 [Distrib. by Qualiton], 52:01 ***:
Leó Weiner (1885-1960) was one of the most important Hungarian musical pedagogues of the twentieth century, teaching theory, composition, and chamber music at the Academy of Music in Budapest. Composing always took a back seat to Weiner’s teaching duties. In a composing career that spanned more than fifty years, he managed to produce only forty-five works, some of which occupied him for decades. Such is the case with the Passacaglia, which started life in 1904 as a piano piece, though left in fragmentary form. Weiner completed the work in 1936 and finally got around to producing an orchestral version in 1955.
That same year he created his arrangement of Liszt’s 1853 Piano Sonata in B Minor, a work that’s probably big enough in scope and gesture to take on orchestral garb. Besides, turnabout is fair play: Liszt himself arranged or paraphrased everything from Beethoven symphonies to Schubert songs to Verdi operas, so Weiner merely gave him tit for tat. Liszt apparently had an unspoken program in mind as he wrote the Sonata—some have speculated it deals with the Faust legend, which Liszt revisited in his Faust Symphony and Mephisto Waltzes a few years later. Be that as it may, the piece has enough dark drama for several tone poems, which is more or less what Weiner turns it into, cannily mimicking Liszt’s orchestral palette, especially in the writing for brass. Though the Sonata is a great work—maybe the greatest Romantic piano sonata—in the wrong hands it can sound melodramatic, and Weiner’s treatment doesn’t entirely escape this trap. Giving a melody to a sugary solo violin backed by harp, a series of runs and trills to the fluttery flutes, Weiner seems at times to want to turn the Sonata into a bad motion picture score. Overall, the arrangement shows his undoubted skills as an orchestrator, but ultimately it’s a matter of carrying coals to Newcastle. I kept wanting to return to the Real Thing.
Call me shallow, but my favorite piece on offer here is Toy Soldiers (1924), a tone poem in which Weiner portrays a battle waged between armies of tin soldiers, complete with military fanfares in the brass and snare drum, the clash of arms in the cymbals (capping a fortissimo orchestral outburst), and cannon fire in the bass drum. It’s all attractively and effectively done, with an appealing lightheartedness that’s welcome after the heavy weather of the Sonata arrangement.
I also like Preludio, Notturno e Scherzo diabolico—another work that occupied Weiner for a long time. Composed in 1911, it finally migrated from piano to the orchestra in 1949. The Preludio and Notturno sections have a Debussian gossamer about them, while the Scherzo is properly manic, even if not terribly diabolico.
The Passacaglia could almost be a movement from a concerto for orchestra since it assigns each of its eleven variations to different instruments and sections of the orchestra. It’s a pretty uneventful work, though, and my overall reaction is ho-hum.
I’m afraid that’s mostly my reaction to the whole disc, despite the limited appeal of Toy Soldiers and Preludio and despite what seem to be good sympathetic performances. (Very decent sound as well, except for some thickness in the bass.) If you want to hear what Leó Weiner the composer has to offer, this is probably as good a place to turn as any, but I can’t work up much enthusiasm about it.
— Lee Passarella