LISZT: Mazeppa; Les Préludes; Orpheus; Prometheus (transcribed Olivier Vernet and Laurent Cabasso) – Laurent Cabasso, piano / Olivier Vernet, organ – Ligia Digital Lidi 0104146-04 [Distr. by Albany], 57:33 ****:
Even if this recording were a total bust—which it decidedly is not—you would have to give points to Ligia Digital for off-the-wall originality. Or maybe not: in his notes to the recording, organist Olivier Vernet says that he got the idea for the program from a recording of Liszt transcriptions for the same forces made by two other French musicians. I guess the idea isn’t so novel after all.
As it goes, these third-generation transcriptions of Liszt’s own two-piano reductions of his tone poems are variously successful. Least so for me is Mazeppa, which is also the most thoroughly programmatic of the bunch. It seems that in his reduction Liszt gives the lion’s share of keyboard derring-do to the first piano. In the piano-organ transcription, this means that the organ is heard mostly in a supportive role while the piano is given a lot of heavy lifting to do. (This is true to a lesser extent of Prometheus as well). Laurent Cabasso’s playing is excitingly virtuosic throughout; at certain points he seems to get carried away, rushing the tempo much more than you typically hear in the orchestral original. This emphasis on the piano—sounding especially percussive against the plush background of organ tones—unbalances the work, plus the fact that you really end up missing the orchestra at points, such as in the grand climax at the end of Mazeppa’s wild ride, before his rescue by the Cossacks. The approach of the Cossack band, announced by the distant trumpets in the orchestral version, is more or less effectively handled by a flute stop on the organ, but I miss the cavalry-to-the-rescue associations of the original.
With the first grand bombastic opening gestures of Les Préludes, you know the organ is going to have more to do, and this is a more successfully balanced transcription. The big tutti passages in the original are given orchestral weight and amplitude here, thanks to the organ pedal notes, which the engineers capture with authentic oomph. (My venetian blinds rattled appreciatively at certain points in Les Préludes and the next two tone poems.)
Orpheus, although Liszt’s most subdued and lyrical tone poem, is effective as well. The organ is called on to lend a sweet songfulness to the proceedings that seems especially right given Liszt’s heady description of the songs of Orpheus: “their sound nobly voluptuous to the soul, their sweet undulation like breezes from the Elysian field.”
More bombastic posturing in Liszt’s portrayal of Prometheus, the titan who brought fire to mortals. This isn’t one of my favorites among the tone poems. Despite (or maybe because) the organ tends to emphasize the corny silent-movie theatrics of Liszt’s musical program, I find this an entertaining if over-the-top rendering of Liszt’s original and I’d just as soon hear it this way as in Liszt’s orchestral trappings.
The recording posed problems for both performers and engineers. Olivier Laurent explains, “we were separated by a distance of some fifteen metres: the organ was up in the loft (the instrument in the Cathedral of Angers, borne by splendid atlantes [columns in the shape of a man] and is rather impressive) and the piano on a podium erected beneath the organ, making it impossible for us to see each other! Everything was able to be carried out thanks to audio and video relays, the only efficient means for making possible the cohesion required by the diabolical precision of certain vivace passages, as well as the charm and poetry of various andantes.” Indeed. Points again for overcoming these difficulties so successfully.
This disc won’t be for everybody, but for those who are already in Liszt’s camp, and especially for those who know and like the two-piano transcriptions, this will be a fascinating appendix to the Liszt tone poem discography. For others, the sheer virtuosity of the performances and the thrilling sounds emanating from the grand space of Cathédral Saint-Maurice should be enough to ensure an entertaining experience. [It’s too bad it’s not a surround SACD…Ed.]
— Lee Passarella
The unifying purpose of Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn…