LISZT: Hungaria; Orpheus; Prometheus; Hamlet; Hunnenschlacht – USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra/ Mark Ermler/ Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/ Thomas Beecham/ Prague Radio Symphony/ Stanislav Macura/ Orchestra de la Suisse Romande/ Ernest Ansermet – Praga Digitals SACD PRD 250 384, 75:21 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:
The sequel to Volume One proves equally as stirring.
For a review of Volume One in this series, please see Gary Lemco’s August 14th, 2017 posting. I share his satisfaction and enthusiasm for the first edition, and only second it with this wonderful sequel. I need to make mention that the sound is phenomenal in its remastered two-channel SACD guise, ranging from 1958 to 1989. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that these are not cheap, coming in around $23 on Amazon, a little steep for rereleases of any stripe. However, would I buy them? You bet!
The nationalistic fervor provided by Liszt’s 1854 Hungaria allowed it to achieve enormous success right from the beginning, with the composer conducting the premiere in 1856. His Heroic March in Hungarian Style provided the basis for the piece, and Liszt himself said that “all wept, both men and women.” Ermler and his USSR band, colorful, as most Soviet orchestras were at the time, and not always for the right reasons, issue a performance full of bravado and passion. Even more thrilling is Beecham’s champion rendering of Orpheus, reckoned as the fourth “tone poem” out of twelve that he wrote while in Weimar. Beecham completely understands the more contemplative nature of this work, and it is a poetic reading indeed.
No. 5 in the cycle was unleashed in a revision from 1855, previously incarnated from a production of Johann Gottfried Herder’s Prometheus Unbound. Prometheus, the overture-now-titled symphonic poem was not understood by the public due to the dissonances, but it soon became one of the composer’s most beloved pieces. This hothouse reading by Stanislav Macura, whom I had not known, is certainly close to my previous favorites, Haitink and Solti, and easily sounds better than both.
Hamlet, another Ermler performance, is No. 10 in the cycle and premiered quite a few years later in 1876 even though it was composed in 1858. Hamlet’s love interest Ophelia gets only a couple of brief meditative sections here as Liszt decided to delve more deeply into the complex psychology of the title character. Ermler is very good in this music. The 1857 Battle of the Huns is after a painting of the same name by Wilhelm von Kaulbach. It depicts Attila and his cohorts against the Roman general Flavius Aetius and his coalition with the Visigoth King Theoforic, in a battle so severe and savage that the dead warriors were said to continue their fighting on their way to heaven! Ernest Ansermet understands Liszt’s instructions that “the entire color should be kept very dark, and all instruments must sound like ghosts.” This is an excellent reading by the Swiss orchestra.
As stated, well worth acquiring despite the price, especially for Liszt lovers.