Liszt: Les Preludes (CD review)

Also, Two Legends; Two Episodes after Lenau's Faust. James Conlon, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. Warner Classics Apex 2564 66586-1.

Les Preludes was the third in a series of symphonic poems written by Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt (1811-1886), and today it stands as undoubtedly his most popular. How popular? Even for people who don't think they know the piece, they probably know it. In the Thirties Universal Studios used the main theme as background music for the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials, and during World War II the Nazis used it in some of their propaganda films and radio shows. These days it shows up in popular culture with a severe regularity.

Liszt himself approved a preface to the music that began "What else is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown Hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death?" Unfortunately, the preface didn't really explain the music or its meaning, which has had musical scholars debating the subject to this day. The main thing is that people have always seemed to appreciate the music's forward thrust, its heroic melodies, its memorable motifs, and its dynamic rhythms. And that is what we expect of any musical interpretation anymore--something big and bold and not a little theatrical. Which is where Maestro James Conlon and his Rotterdam Philharmonic are only partially successful in this reissued Erato recording from Warner Classics.

The album starts with Les Preludes, with Conlon tending to take his time through the opening Andante section, almost a leisurely stroll, and doesn't entirely build up the necessary tension for the more weighty Allegro passages that follow. Then when the familiar theme commences, it does so without as much fury as we might expect. Here, we could look to two other conductors who essayed the work with different approaches but similar pulse-pounding results: Sir Georg Solti and Bernard Haitink. Solti takes his time just as Conlon does, but he builds up a good deal more excitement by varying his tempos and contrasts more (greatly aided by Decca's robust sonics). Haitink, whom you would anticipate being more careful than the others, actually attacks the score more vigorously than either Conlon or Solti. Still, both Solti and Haitink seem to have a better handle on the bravura aspects of the music than Conlon does and provide a more-exhilarating ride.

The rest of the album is essentially filler to the more-popular piece, yet it's splendid filler. Indeed, I enjoyed the two scenes from Faust and the two Legends more than I did the Preludes. The Faust episodes--the "Procession by Night" and the "Dance at the Village Inn" (also known as "The Mephisto Waltz")--display all the energy lacking in the Preludes. The waltz is especially effective and downright spooky on occasion.

The two Legends of "St. Francis of Assisi's sermon to the birds" and "St. Francis of Paola walking on water" are understandably less histrionic than the Preludes or Faust music, and Conlon helps them come across with a placid, meditative conviction.

Erato recorded the performances in Rotterdam in 1983 (Faust) and 1985 (Preludes, Legends), and Warner Classics re-released them in 2011. The program begins with the later sound, which is good but not spectacular. It displays a wide dynamic range, a strong transient impact, and a realistic stage depth. The massed violins, too, are lifelike, supplemented by a taut bass response. Although the overall effect is a tad thick, soft, and reverberant, it is also mostly smooth, making the music easily listenable. Interestingly, it's the Faust music, recorded earlier, that offers the better sound, perhaps miked a little closer and appearing a little less muted.


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