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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Hunnenschlacht, S. 645 (arr. A. Stradal) [14:11]
Festklšnge, S. 641 (arr. A. Stradal) [17:38]
Prometheus, S. 639 (arr. A. Stradal) [13:09]
Mazeppa, S. 640 / R362 (arr. A. Stradal) [17:28]
Risto-Matti Marin (piano)
rec. 2016/17, Kangasala Hall, Kangasala, Finland.
The Complete Symphonic Poems Transcribed for Solo Piano - Volume 3

Liszt himself arranged his thirteen symphonic poems for two pianos or piano duet, but he never transcribed them solo piano – that was done by his pupil August Stradal (1860–1930). Leslie Howard’s amazing Hyperion survey was of everything Liszt himself wrote or arranged for solo piano, so did not include these arrangements. Hence this series is almost entirely one of first recordings, including every work found on this third issue. Its attractions are further enhanced by including two of the better-known of Liszt’s symphonic poems, Prometheus and Mazeppa.

Carl Tausig, another Liszt pupil had made solo transcriptions of eleven of the thirteen works, but these are elusive and have a reputation of being impossible to play. Stradal’s versions also demand almost superhuman virtuosity it seems, and the Finnish pianist Risto-Matti Marin has had to make some adjustments to “some quite impossible things”. Toccata Classics quote Malcolm MacDonald’s booklet note claim that Stradal’s versions “transform these revolutionary orchestral compositions into viable and effective piano works, faithfully preserving their masterly musical substance”. It is difficult to disagree.

Hunnenschlacht (“The Battle of the Huns”) is among the more neglected of the symphonic poems, even though Humphrey Searle’s old volume on the composer tells us it opens with battle music that is “one of the finest things Liszt ever wrote”. Marin plays it as if that is the indeed the case, and thus with total conviction. All the familiar and most challenging of Liszt’s pianistic devices (many of which he invented) are deployed in music of wild ferocity, despatched with thrilling skill. Only at 6:30 does the tumult recede, as the plainchant Crux Fidelis invokes the cross of Christ, and Marin’s evocation of the strength of belief that will triumph at the end is done with the simplicity it needs. Festklšnge (“Festival Sounds”) has the same pianistic qualities, and though it is even more neglected than Hunnenschlacht, one ends wondering quite why.

With Prometheus we enter a more familiar (even autobiographical) Lisztian realm, the suffering to be endured in the search for progress and enlightenment. One of the most compelling of the symphonic poems in any form, it loses much less than you might expect in piano transcription. In fact the twenty-plus bars of fugato writing in the middle, perhaps representing creativity, are easier to follow with such clearly delineated playing than in the orchestral version. An earlier Liszt Mazeppa already existed of course as a piano solo in the fourth of the twelve Transcendental Studies, but Liszt extended it for the symphonic poem. Marin’s virtuosity here – and his sheer dramatic narrative flair - suggest that Toccata should record him next in those studies.

I am always on the lookout for discs that will convert those who resist Liszt, for we diehard fully paid-up Lisztians are an endangered species. Perhaps I could direct my visitors to please leave their anti-Lisztian prejudices at the door, while I play them tracks three and four of this disc. Risto-Matti Marin’s pianism has everything technically, but it is all used in the service of the music, in which he so wholeheartedly believes. His doctoral thesis focussed on piano transcription, but there is nothing dryly academic about his passionately red-blooded performances here. The piano sound copes with the wide dynamic range admirably, and the booklet has a dozen pages of enlightening notes (entirely in English).

Rob Barnett’s MWI reviews of the first two volumes in this series (review ~ review) praised Risto-Matti Marin’s panache, and he even remarked “I am not at all sure that these solo versions do not work better as pieces of music than the orchestral editions” – and Rob then called for recordings of Stradal’s transcriptions of the Bruckner symphonies! In the meantime, Vol. 4 of this series, when it arrives, will complete a superb enterprise deserving of great success.

Roy Westbrook



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