Liszt: Sardanapalo & Mazeppa – Audite

by | Apr 22, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

LISZT: Mazeppa, Symphonic Poem No. 6; Sardanapalo (unfinished opera) – Joyce El-Khoury, soprano/ Airam Hernanadez, tenor/ Oleksander Pushniak, bass-baritone/ Opera Chorus Nationaltheater Weimar/ Staatskapelle Weimar/ Kirill Karabits – Audite 97. 764, 67:01 (2/8/19) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Liszt felt inspired to conceive his 1851 tone-poem Mazeppa – based on the story of the fabled Cossack leader Ivan Mazeppa, condemned to death for seduction of a noble lady, tied naked to a horse and set loose in Asia to perish, yet who receives rescue and eventual triumph, a crown, and glory – in response to both a Byronic narrative and poem by Victor Hugo. Much in the structural style of his own piano etude, Liszt sets his main melody for the strings, augmented by huge forces, including timpani, bassoon, piccolo, euphonium, and blazing trumpet work. The Allegro Marziale possesses the same grandeur we hear in the dashing figures of the E-flat Piano Concerto.  Some interpreters take the rushing flight of the horse to mean the relentless urge of creative genius, and the horse’s death and salvation of Mazeppa to embody a kind of spiritual rebirth and apotheosis. In three definable sections, the music works out a series of variations within a sonata form, centered on D minor, G minor, and A minor, and at the last, D Major.  At its most serene, or even prophetic moments, the harmony resides in E Major. If Herbert von Karajan were the first of the modern recordings – after that of Oskar Fried – to celebrate the music in regal sonics, this Karabits performance (17-20 August 2018) tries even more energetically to raise the aural roof of the world.

The etiology of Liszt’s unfinished opera Sardanapalo first relies on Lord Byron’s 1821 five-act tragic narrative of the Assyrian king, a hedonist of epic proportions who effeminate tastes and reluctance to engage in war lead to uprising and his own wish to die in flames, consumed alive with his lover, Myrrha. The publication of the Byron text gave rise to the famous Delacroix painting of 1827 and to a treatment by Berlioz, the cantata Le dermiere nuit de Sardanapale, which won him the 1830 Prix de Rome.  In we hearByron’s words, the grand inferno of the last scene means to raise a spectacle “not a mere pillar formed of cloud and flame, but a light to lessen ages.” Liszt exclaimed that his musical finale “will aim to set fire to the entire audience!” It seems Liszt became frustrated in the project by the failure of his librettist Felicien Mallefille to conform to deadlines and by Liszt’s own, manic working habits at Weimar, maintaining a creative pace that would not let him correct his manuscript that would fashion a realizable score.

Portrait Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt

What we have then, in this 2017 resuscitation by musicologist David Trippett of the existing notes, vocal score, and visual cues left by Liszt, comes as a grand surprise.  Set on one fatal night in four huge scenes, the music flows in what we must grant are impulses from Bellini, Berlioz, Verdi, and Italian strains in young Wagner. In the course of the static atmosphere of Act One – virtually little ‘happens’ except declarations of various emotions – we hear all sorts of musical combinations, from the salon to the guild hall, and bits recitative, waltzes, Verdian choruses and ensemble-pieces out of Nabucco, Bellini bel canto, and some howling tropes that would mightily impress Richard Strauss and Respighi.  Tenor Airam Hernandez sports a sweetly voluptuous voice as the sympathetic Sardanapalo, while basso Oleksander Pushniak defines a predictable foil as Beleso.  I have mixed feelings about soprano El-Khoury, whose Mirra conveys sensuality and loyalty, but not a particularly stable upper register.  But the splash and sheer volubility of Liszt’s sense of scope rises above the fray and display, an epic musical imagination on a par with his operatic idol Berlioz, who shares with Liszt the responsibility of having absorbed all the conceits of 19th Century Romanticism.

–Gary Lemco





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