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CD Review

Franz Liszt

Symphonic Poems, Vol. 5

  • A Dante Symphony
  • Two Legends
Gillian Keith, soprano
Ladies' Voices of the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
Chandos CHAN10524
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When you think of Liszt, you think primarily of piano music. But the composer was quite prolific in the orchestral genre, turning out thirteen tone poems, various orchestral works like A Faust Symphony and A Dante Symphony, and many choral/orchestral works, as well as numerous pieces for piano and orchestra and arrangements of solo piano music. Apart from his piano concertos and Totentanz though, you rarely hear any orchestral works of Liszt in the concert hall, with the exception of the tone poem Les Preludes.

This work, actually titled Eine Symphonie zu Dantes Divina Commedia, is certainly worthwhile, if ponderous and somewhat long. Long too is the Faust Symphony, and when you think about it, Liszt was writing big symphonic works before Bruckner and Mahler were. Speaking of Mahler, one clearly hears a passage foreshadowing Mahler in this symphony: at the beginning of track 4 here, the coda to the Inferno, you hear light, rhythmic strokes on the bass drum, menacing bassoons and dark, roiling strings that together clearly augur a passage or two in the first movement of the Mahler Third Symphony, which wouldn't appear until four decades later. Was Mahler imitating Liszt?

Back to the issue at hand… In this performance Noseda draws a tension-filled, drama-laden performance from the BBC Philharmonic. You can practically see (and feel the heat from) the inferno in the opening sections, as well as sense the ethereal rapture of the closing Magnificat. The singing by the chorus is angelic and the soloist's brief work is fine. This must be counted among the finest Dante Symphony recordings in recent decades. Chandos' sound is excellent, too.

The fillers, St. Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds, and St. Francis of Paola Walking on the Water, which comprise the Two Legends, are relatively recent discoveries – their scores were discovered in 1975. Both works were originally conceived for the piano and generally sound better in that form, although the first piece, with its chirping sounds and gentle sonorities, comes off quite well in Liszt's deft orchestration. The second piece is too brassy and bombastic in the big moments for my taste. Noseda and the orchestra, however, offer excellent performances of both works, again in vivid Chandos sonics. All in all, this disc can be highly recommended.

Copyright © 2009, Robert Cummings