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Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1863) – Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Transcriptions from Operas by Meyerbeer
Illustrations du Prophète, S414/R223 [42:43] (Priere – Hymne triomphale Marche du sacre [16:07]; Les patineurs – Scherzo [14:36]; Chœur pastoral – Appel aux armes [11:58])
Cavatine de Robert le diable, S412a [5:26]
Réminiscences de Robert le diable – Valse infernale, S413/R22 [12:22]
Illustrations de L’Africaine, S415/R224 [22:21] (Prière des matelots [8:33]; Marche indienne [13:46])
Sergio Gallio (piano)
rec. 2014, Nilento Studio, Gothenburg, Sweden
NAXOS 8.573235 [82:57]

I have never seen a Meyerbeer opera but nor had many of those who first heard these works. In the days before broadcasts and recordings music-lovers relied on piano versions to get an idea of these lavish operas which so thrilled audiences at the Paris opera.

Humphrey Searle, whose catalogue of Liszt’s works is, with revisions, still current, distinguished between Liszt’s operatic transcriptions and his fantasias. The transcriptions are more of less faithful piano versions, such as the Rigoletto paraphrase from Verdi, or the Tristan Liebestod from Wagner. The fantasias on the other hand are free compositions which use themes from the opera in a new work. This can be merely a potpourri of good tunes, or sometimes, as in the case of the Réminiscences de Don Juan, from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, can be a powerfully integrated composition in its own right. Successful works in either form depend partly on the quality of the original themes, partly on that of Liszt’s treatment, and also on the quality of the playing the pianist brings to them.

The versions of Verdi and Wagner are quite well-known, as are some of Liszt’s other operatic fantasias and transcriptions. But those from Meyerbeer are less well known, and one has to say straightaway that this has to be partly because Meyerbeer’s themes are genuinely less interesting. Meyerbeer puzzles and intrigues me: he had to have something to so entrance his contemporary audiences, and for that matter to be so excoriated by Wagner, but what I have heard of him has seemed neither wonderful nor dreadful but competently second rate.

We begin with the Illustrations du Prophète, derived from the opera Le Prophète which is about the Anabaptist rising in Münster in the sixteenth century. The opening Prière-Hymne triomphale-Marche du sacre, which is one continuous work, not three, is precisely the kind of potpourri which must have gone down well at the time but which seems a bit pointless now. It rambles on endlessly. Les Patineurs (the skaters) was the ballet for this opera. Liszt takes a basically simple melody and elaborates it with fantastical decoration turning it into a splendid display piece. The Choeur pastoral begins with a single line: originally two shepherd pipes answering each other; later on the Anabaptists burst in. This is an attractive work which might have come from the Années de pèlerinage.

The Cavatine from Robert le diable seems a fairly straight transcription with some piano elaboration, another attractive piece. However, the Valse infernale is a disappointment. Meyerbeer’s idea of the devilish is far less demonic than Liszt himself, in the Mephisto music and elsewhere, and his brilliant treatment cannot wholly disguise the poverty of the original themes.

Of the two numbers based on Meyerbeer’s last opera, L’Africaine, the Prière des matelots contrasts sombre passages in the bass with celestial music in the high treble, rather on the model of the two Franciscan legends. It is an impressive work. However, the Marche indienne reverts to the episodic form, and though the individual sections are attractive, as a whole the piece goes on far too long.

This disc, though well filled, does not contain all Liszt’s versions of Meyerbeer: there is Reminiscences des Huguenots, of which there are three versions, also Le Moine. And the finest of all these Meyerbeer versions is the fourth and last of the Illustrations du Prophète, the Fantasia and fugue on ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’. Liszt wrote this for organ, with a piano four hands version as an alternative. The tolerably well known solo piano version is by Busoni. Still, without it, the disc is a bit like Hamlet without the prince.

Sergio Gallo is fluent and musical. He can play the notes, which is no mean achievement. But he lacks the flamboyance, the daredevil quality, which is part of the conception of these pieces which makes the more extravagant passages fall a little flat. The sleeve-note is really helpful, summarizing the actions of the operas and giving the background of Liszt’s versions. The recording is clear enough though a little clangorous at the climaxes. This disc is number 40 in Naxos’ complete piano music series, which fascinating fact is all that is given on the spine. Naxos should look at Hyperion, whose Liszt series sensibly tells you what is on the disc and leaves the volume number to a small place on the back.

Leslie Howard has recorded all these works in his Liszt series, but they are scattered across half a dozen different issues. So if you want most of Liszt’s Meyerbeer, to sit next to his versions of Verdi and Wagner, this is one to get.

Stephen Barber


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