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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.172a (1847)
Wojciech Waleczek (piano)
rec. 2018, Concert Hall of The Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music, Katowice, Poland
Reviewed as a 16-bit download
Pdf booklet included
Liszt Complete Piano Music Vol. 53
NAXOS 8.573773 [72:27]

In the early days Naxos was a super-budget brand that often featured fairly obscure ensembles, conductors and soloists. Now, 32 years since it was founded, the label boasts some top talent, a wide repertoire and much improved engineering. So, one could almost forgive them for raising their prices in recent months. At the time of writing, this review album was listed on Amazon UK at more than £10; simultaneously, though, Presto were running a time-limited promotion that slashed the cost of Naxos high-res downloads to just £3.94. It really does pay to shop around.

Naxos are also well known for their ongoing series, such as those devoted to American music (indispensable) and wind bands (not far behind). Their multi-volume composer cycles, including this long-running Liszt one, are important, too. I’ve reviewed several releases in this strand, pianists William Wolfram and the late Joel Hastings among them. As one would expect of such a major survey, some instalments are more desirable than others. That said, I’ve yet to encounter a dud; indeed, a quick dip into this new album suggested it could be rather special

Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, based on an eponymous collection of poems by Alphonse de Lamartine, began life in the 1840s. The version played here, S.172a, was published in 1847, the final one, S.173, in 1853. Performers and labels overwhelmingly prefer the latter, as a glance at the catalogue confirms. To the best of my knowledge, this recording of S.172a is the only full one available (excerpts are programmed from time to time). That said, I expect to be told of unreleased or deleted recordings languishing in dusty vaults somewhere.

In his 2004 review of Steven Osborne’s S.173, Terry Barfoot noted this music - which I take to mean Liszt’s solo-piano music in general - has been ‘indifferently served’ by the recording companies. Very true, but in recent years artists and A&R departments have begun to give this repertoire its due; Leslie Howard’s comprehensive Hyperion survey, set down between 1985 and 2009, certainly played a key role in this rehabilitation process. Happily, a whole new generation of pianists, among them Gábor Farkas, Kirill Gerstein and Francesco Piemontesi, offer thoughtful, revitalising performances of music that, for me at least, was often spoilt by a relentless. overblown playing style (with a sound to match). Alas, newish recordings of S.173 from François-Frédéric Guy (Zig-Zag Territoires) and Michael Korstick (CPO), suggest not everyone has embraced the change.

I must confess the Polish pianist Wojciech Waleczek (b. 1980) hasn’t appeared my radar until now, although I see he’s recorded other Liszt albums for Naxos and Capriccio. Hearing him play S.172a, I soon realised Waleczek is a very fine Lisztian. Clearly, he’s of the ‘new school’, as he brings sensitivity and sure sense of style to every bar. (In particular, those precipitous moments in the ‘Invocation’ are so subtly done.) Phrasing is entirely natural, rhythms are supple and those stormy climaxes are sensibly proportioned. Moreover, there’s a wonderful fluidity to his playing - ‘Hymn of the night‘ and the E-flat major piano pieces, for example - that made me stop jotting and just listen. Nay-sayers have long dismissed Liszt as an interminable note-spinner, yet in the right hands his output for piano reveals a vitality and sense of purpose that few would have imagined 20 years ago. That, in turn, creates a compelling narrative that Waleczek sustains to the very end.

And how refreshing it is to hear Liszt played without showy, self-regarding touches or wildly exaggerated dynamics. Instead, what we have here is a thoroughly musical artist, alive to every aspect of the composer’s phenomenal craft. All too often, the colour and detail woven into Liszt’s complex tapestries is obscured by poor sound; also, players and engineers seem to underestimate the importance of an expressive, well-articulated bass. (Apart from Korstick’s unsympathetic playing, his recording of S.173 is further compromised by a blurred and boomy bottom end.) By contrast, Ewa Guziołek-Tubelewicz has done a splendid job here, the sound in that department firm and focused, the piano sounding well across the range. She and Waleczek are on the same page here, and it shows at every turn. That, combined with what seems to be a very congenial acoustic, helps to create a recording - and performance - of great distinction. One aspect I really appreciate is the way final notes and chords are allowed to decay in the most natural and atmospheric way.

As you will see from the track-list below, the structure and content of S.172a looks rather different to that of S.173. Musically, though, it sounds every bit as clear and cogent as its successor, especially when the music is delivered with such obvious care and insight. Perhaps the word devotion is more apt, for it’s a quality this pianist conveys so well, the second version of ‘Litanies of Mary’ especially moving. (The first version, shorter but no less lovely, is included as an appendix. Another ‘extra’ is the final incarnation of the E-flat major piece, the Benediction in S.173.) Then again, there’s no hurdle too high for Waleczek, no mood misjudged, the humour of ‘Hymn of the Child wakening’ a special delight. In short, a magical performance all round. And Keith Anderson’s liner-notes, with their useful Lamartine quotes? They’re excellent, too.

Waleczek joins that select group of pianists doing so much to revive interest in this extraordinary repertoire; as ever, top-notch sound is a considerable bonus.

Dan Morgan

I. Invocation [3:27]
II. Hymne de la nuit (Hymn of the night) [7:16]
III. Hymne du matin (Hymn of the morning) [4:14]
IV. Litanies de Marie (Litany of Mary) (2nd version) [13:40]
V. Miserere d’après Palestrina (Miserere according to Palestrina) [2:10]
VI. Pater noster, d’après la Psalmodie de l’Église (Our Father, according to Church Psalmody) [3:17]
VII. Hymne de l’Enfant à son réveil (Hymn of the Child wakening) [7:10]
VIII. Les Morts (The Dead) [4:12]
IX. La Lampe du temple où l’Âme présente à Dieu (The temple lamp where the Soul offers itself to God) [8:07]
X. Piano piece in E-flat major (early version of the Benediction in S.173) [6:01]
XI. Piano piece in E-flat major - Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (The blessing of God in solitude) [4:39]
IV. Litanies de Marie (Litany of Mary) (1st version) [8:14]


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