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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses S172a (1847 version)
Wojciech Waleczek (piano)
rec. 2018, Concert Hall of the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music, Katowice, Poland
Complete Piano Music – Volume 53
NAXOS 8.573773 [72:38]

This disc presents the rarely heard 1847 version of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses by Franz Liszt, a composer who was by nature an inveterate recycler and reviser. Here, in Volume 53 of this ongoing piano music project, Naxos adds a twelfth piece to the eleven Liszt put in the set and identifies it correctly as the first version of No. 4 in the collection, Litanies de Marie, but does not give its catalogue number, which is S171e. Actually, that tag provides a crucial distinction: at his death Liszt left a huge and utterly confusing output for performers and musicologists to decipher and organize into an intelligible listing. Multiple versions of single works and collections of works, as well as incomplete, untitled compositions, and transcriptions, paraphrases and fantasies based on music of other composers dominated his piano output. Musical reference books misidentified or did not include many of his works for years. Leslie Howard, who recorded all the composer’s piano works (including those with orchestra) for Hyperion, and the late composer and musicologist Humphrey Searle have been instrumental in the effort to catalogue Liszt’s compositions. The “S” preceding the number in Liszt’s works refers to Searle.

As noted above, there are eleven works in the S172a Harmonies, whereas the S173 version, published in 1853, has ten. Nos. 2, 3 and 4 from S172a were not included by Liszt in the later collection, though he added other pieces to comprise the ten. Liszt was originally inspired to compose Harmonies poétiques et religieuses by a collection of poems of the same title by Alphonse de Lamartine. In this early set of the Harmonies one notices that the composer seems to tilt the character of the works mostly toward moods of religiosity and serenity, whereas the final versions feature both those aspects but also a sense of struggle and angst, as if Liszt is taking a more human approach to his Christianity and ultimately a less idealistic one. Whether he viewed the music that way cannot be known, but one certainly does notice a more tempestuous character in many of the later versions. Also, the 1853 collection is far more complex and bigger in scale, lasting considerably longer in performance.

As with most early versions of Liszt’s piano compositions, those in the 1847 set of the Harmonies do not quite reach the high artistic merit of the later ones. This early version of Invocation is an attractive, serene piece, but lacks the grandeur, struggles and profundity of the later and much bigger reworking. Nos. 2 and 3 are interesting efforts, the former tranquil and meditative, the latter a bit flashy and bombastic, but neither having outstanding merit. That said, those who favor Liszt’s lush, lyrical side will find much in No. 2 of great beauty, while other listeners may view them both as a bit saccharine. The aforementioned Litanies de Marie (No. 4) is the longest and grandest piece in this early set. It has much lyrical beauty and a good measure of Lisztian religious ecstasy, though it is hampered somewhat by a rambling structure. Still, it is certainly one of the best pieces in this set.

No. 5, Misere d’après Palestrina (not actually sourced in Palestrina’s works, as it turns out), was renumbered as No. 8 in the later set and expanded slightly. This early version is the briefest work in the 1847 set and is quite effective in its mostly somber, sacral character. The Pater Noster that follows is similar in mood but somewhat more meditative in its rather barren writing but doesn’t leave a strong impression. The ensuing Hymne de l'Enfant à son réveil is an effective piece, somewhat improved in the later version. Les Morts is quite different: at times I had the impression it sounded like loosely strung together sketches of the later version. The 1853 account is considerably expanded, more dramatic and expressive, far better structured and simply vastly superior. No. 9 is a reasonably strong piece here, not greatly overshadowed by the later version.

Regarding the Piano Piece in E-flat Major (No. 10, which is called Hymne in Leslie Howard’s listing), Keith Anderson writes in his informative album notes, that it “is a slightly longer version of what becomes Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, the third piece in the later version of the Harmonies.” Well, that statement is easy to misread, as some will assume he’s referring directly to the 1853 version of Bénédiction, which is more than twice as long, lasting around fifteen to eighteen minutes. I think what Anderson is saying is that the Piano Piece in E-flat Major becomes the first version of Bénédiction, which is the following, slightly shorter E-flat major piece on this disc. In any event, neither work much resembles the masterly and ever-popular 1853 version of Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, although there are similarities to be noticed in the last version’s final section. Neither of these early renditions, lushly Romantic and attractive though they are, reaches the grand ecstatic heights of the later account. The final piece on the disc is, of course, the early version of Litanies de Marie, and though it’s not quite as effective as the other one on this disc, it still offers a very interesting look at Liszt’s early thoughts on its material.

So, there you have it. This music is mostly interesting, in some cases compelling, but in the end not able to stand comparison with the later versions. Still, it’s nice to have and as far as I know this is only the second available recording of this set. I have much of Leslie Howard’s complete Hyperion cycle of Liszt’s piano works, but have not heard him in this version of the Harmonies, and thus cannot make comparisons.

Polish pianist Wojciech Waleczek (b. 1980) has captured high prizes in several important international piano competitions and concertizes regularly across the globe. He has made two previous recordings for Naxos in works by Liszt. Here he plays with a formidable technique and fine grasp of Liszt’s style: his dynamics, tempos and other interpretive aspects of phrasing are well judged, leaving you with the strong impression that he fully understands Liszt’s music. I can only surmise his playing of the later versions would likely be most impressive. Naxos provides him with excellent sound reproduction. Liszt mavens and those wanting to sample the byways of the Romantic piano repertory will find this disc an intriguing addition to their library.

Robert Cummings

Previous review: Dan Morgan
1. Invocation [3:27]
2. Hymne de la nuit [7:16]
3. Hymne du matin [4:14]
4. Litanies de Marie (2nd version) [13:40]
5. Miserere d'après Palestrina [2:10]
6. Pater noster, d'après la Psalmodie de l'Église [3:17]
7. Hymne de l'Enfant à son réveil [7:10]
8. Les Morts [4:12]
9. La Lampe du temple où l’Âme présente à Dieu [8:07]
10. Piano piece in E-Flat Major [6:01]
11. Piano piece in E-Flat Major, ("Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude" ) [4:39]
12. Litanies de Marie (1st version), S173e [8:14]

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