LISZT: From the Cradle to the Grave, S107; Three Funeral Odes, S112; Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust, S110 – BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Glasgow Singers/Ilan Volkov – Hyperion CDA67856, 78:56 [Distr. By Harmonia mundi] ****:
More additions to the Liszt bicentennial come from Glasgow, Scotland (rec. 2-4 June 2010) from Israeli conductor Ilan Volkov (b. 1976) and his responsive ensemble. Composed in 1881, Liszt’s thirteenth tone-poem From the Cradle to the Grave finds its inspiration in a drawing by Hungarian artist Mihaly Zichy (1827-1906) that depicts the stages of Man’s existence: birth; the struggle for existence; and death, “the cradle” of the life to come. After a quiet opening based on the keyboard Wiegenlied, the middle section becomes darkly active, the swells often suggestive of the tumult in Eine Faust-Symphonie. The “Zum Grabe” section heaves and sighs with Romantic dolor, a credit to the legato string line of the BBC Scottish Orchestra. The trumpet work late in the piece seems to mark an ascension. As unusual as it may seem, Arturo Toscanini found this piece to his taste and programmed it with the NBC in 1941.
The Three Funeral Odes (1860-1866) comprise a formidable meditation on death, the section “Les morts” motivated by the passing of Liszt’s only son Daniel at the age of twenty. Liszt has a male chorus intone “Beati mortui qui in Domino moriuntur,” the De Profundis that claims “Blessed are the dead who die in the grace of The Lord.” The Orison follows the structure of a poem “The Dead” by the Abbe Felicite de Lamennais (1782-1854). Before the section concludes, it reaches a state of dark exultation in the Sanctus and its repetitions of Hosanna. La notte takes its cue from Michelangelo’s Il penseroso, carved for the tomb of Lorenzo de Medici, but more aptly written in the wake of the death of Liszt’s elder daughter Blandine in childbirth. Liszt inscribed Virgil’s words, “And dying he remembers fair Argos” from The Aeneid into the opening phrase. The application of Hungarian cadences aligns the obsessive procession with the elegiac E Minor Rhapsody, a suggestion that Liszt would die far from home.
The last of the triptych is entitled “Epilogue to the Symphonic Poem: Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo,” and opens with an oration from Tasso’s funeral, at which former enemies wept at his passing. The poet Goethe likewise found Tasso a romantic subject, and Liszt quotes themes he had employed as an overture to the play Torquato Tasso, music of passionate dignity and elegiac restraint. The more inflamed passages remind us of the Berlioz Op. 15, his Symphonie funebre et triumphal (1840), which kinship seems obvious. Gorgeously dark harmonies in the violas, cello, and low winds, along with a few choice brass, bring the trilogy to a tolling conclusion.
The Faust legend obsessed Liszt, and his friendship with Hector Berlioz merely intensified the fascination. The Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust (1861) took orchestral form before the second, The Dance at the Village Inn, became the astounding virtuoso piano piece we know. The Nocturnal Procession moves in highly chromatic gestures that grope for a foundation key until the St. Thomas Aquinas hymn “Pange lingua gloriosi corporis mysterium” asserts itself. In a fanciful rendering, the music depicts Faust as he witnesses a religious procession of vibrant ecstasy that leaves him bereft of personal hope, and he weeps into his horse’s mane. Some of the lush orchestral color adumbrates Sibelius, particularly En Saga and The Swan of Tuonela. The First Mephisto Waltz–called by J.G. Huneker “one of the most voluptuous episodes outside the Tristan score”–relishes its suggestive syncopations as Faust embraces a village girl while Mephisto fiddles away, and the amorous couple swirls into the night woods, where a night bird soon warbles his own love song. Volkov elicits vibrant playing from his forces; and along with those classic renditions by Rodzinski and Reiner, this inscription has my feet tapping and heart thumping.
Symphonic Poems by Sibelius