LISZT: Works for Piano and Orchestra, Volumes 1& 2
Louis Lortie, piano; Residentie Orchestra, The Hague/George Pehlivanian

Fantasia on a Theme from Beethoven's Ruins of Athens, S.122. Grande fantaisie symphonique on Themes from Berlioz's LÈlio, S.120. SCHUBERT-LISZT: Wandererfantaisie, S. 366.  WEBER-LISZT: Polonaise brillante, S. 367.

CHANDOS 9801 (F) (DDD)  TT: 65:48 

De profundis, Op. 668.  MalÈdiction, Op. 452.  Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Tunes, Op. 458.  Totentanz, Op. 457.
CHANDOS 9864 (F) (DDD) TT:  79:39

Chandos certainly has assembled the right performers for its Liszt series. Louis Lortie has the required power and the dash for this repertoire, informed by solid musicianship and, in the transcriptions, an appropriate "Classical" rigor. George Pehlivanian and the Dutch orchestra support him handsomely and with style; the velvety, expressive principal clarinet deserves special commendation.

Volume 2 looks the more enticing of the two, including as it does a world premiere recording—De profundis, subtitled a "Psaume instrumentale" for piano and orchestra, which Liszt left incomplete. Unfortunately, Jay Rosenblatt's performing edition makes the piece playable without making it interesting. The ruminative basses and smooth, clarinet-dominated chords of the opening evoke the world of the symphonic poems, with the piano lightening the textures and the mood. But, about seven minutes in, the piece gets stuck in a static, repetitive series of orchestral and then piano chords, and never recovers. The familiar musical gestures rattle about to no clear purpose; the tuttis are so much empty bombast. One sees why Liszt never finished the piece.

The opening of the better-organized MalÈdiction changes the atmosphere immediately, with Lortie's firm, purposeful touch leading the ear along nicely through the various episodes. The quieter passages are most impressive—note the pearly runs of MalÈdiction (as well as the sensitive interplay with the solo clarinet in Totentanz). The popular Hungarian Fantasy starts well, with woodwinds and piano ambiguously mournful, but it misfires when the lively sections later on don't effervesce.

Volume 1 comes off altogether better. Nowadays, "arranging" is a pop field, and often an anonymous one at that; in the nineteenth century, the rules were different. Two of these pieces rework piano solos into concertante form; the other two are constructions on existing themes. The original composers are hardly negligible personalities, yet in three of the four transcriptions, Liszt’s voice dominates the proceedings.

Thus, while the dignified start of the "Ruins of Athens" fantasy, with its beautiful woodwind cantabiles, represents Beethoven at his most lyrical, the piano's entrance flourishes are pure Liszt. The piece gradually accumulates the zesty energy of a full-fledged Liszt concerto, with even the well-known march bedecked with mercurial high embellishments. Similarly, Berlioz’s questing anxiety marks the LÈlio fantasy, with occasional characteristic orchestral details, such as the stabbing, repeated trumpet notes; but Liszt's added figurations impress both expressively and as pure display. The Weber, a straight piano-and-orchestra reworking of the original, maintains a German Romantic feeling in the horn chorales near the start; its closing section, with its heavily marked polonaise "swing," puts a rousing cap on it.

Schubert's Wanderer, with its extended ritornello-like beginning and question-and-answer passages, lends itself easily to a concertante rethinking. This is the only piece here that doesn't get submerged into pure Liszt. Oddly, though, it is not Schubert but Beethoven whom we hear in the granitic string passages, the round, full-throated horn phrases, and the third movement's sprightly 6/8 lilt; the whole thing sounds like a miniature Beethoven concerto. Liszt's own theatrical sense emerges in the Adagio, where, after an extended piano solo, he reserves the quiet string entry to heighten the most dramatic moment.

The engineering is similar on both discs, smooth and full in lighter passages, but leaves a rather different impression on each. In volume 2, the resonance somehow neutralizes the power and impact of the tuttis, which never quite deliver. The rich sound is far more natural, and far more satisfying, in volume 1.

S.F.V. (Nov. 2001)