Liszt’s Dante Symphony is a work of astonishing imagination. His evocation of the ‘Inferno’, the shade of Francesca da Rimini and her sad remembered love is marked by strokes of genius which, with bewildering frequency, pre-empt the mature Wagner (who was, incidentally, the dedicatee of the work). If the second and third movements – the ‘Paradiso’ was wisely commuted to a setting of part of the Magnificat plus a brief Hosanna – don’t quite match the sweep and control of the first, they have their own particular magic. Even so, the work has not acquired the popularity of the Faust Symphony. Barenboim’s new recording with the Berlin Philharmonic is thus particularly welcome. Not only does it augment the number of available recordings to four, it is also the most polished. Even performing ‘live’, the Berlin Philharmonic turns in a performance of near-perfection – the solo lines are a particular joy.
Although highly productive and respected in his lifetime as a composer of Lieder, Robert Franz (1815–92) has since become a peripheral figure in music history. One reason may be that he avoids dramatic contrasts and instead aims at an emotional ambiguity: ‘My representation of joy is always tinged with melancholy, whilst that of suffering is always accompanied by an exquisite sensation of losing oneself’, he once wrote to Liszt. As a consequence his music appeals to those who are able ‘to admire the nuances of a charcoal drawing without longing for the colours of a painting’, to quote from Georges Starobinski’s liner notes to this recording. As they began to explore the songs of Franz, Starobinski and the baritone Christian Immler were moved by their findings to devise a programme which includes 23 of the composer’s often quite brief songs. Using the poet Heinrich Heine as their guiding star, they present these – all Heine settings but from different opus groups – in the form of two ‘imagined’ song cycles.
Li plays with a rare combination of virtuoso skill & poetic interpretations, each note he plays a reminder of why, in 2000, his music inspired the jury of the 14th International Chopin Piano Competition to give out the 1st top prize in 15 years to the then 18-year-old boy . . . “His maturity is obvious from the arrangements of the rhythmic transitions to the superb control of strength variations, which is known as the most difficult part of Chopin’s compositions”, (notes director Zhang Guoyong, who conducted the concert.) “It won’t be long before he is a maestro,” Zhang predicts.
Anticipating the developments of his maturity, Franz Liszt's Harmonies poétiques et religieuses is an important transitional piece, if not especially coherent or profound. Liszt's sentimentality and chronic showmanship prevent this set of pious reveries from achieving the deepest spiritual dimensions. But there are many reflective moments in this work that indicate a growing seriousness and even presage the dark emotions and austerity of his final period. While the Invocation, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, and the Cantique d'amour are predictably ecstatic in their climaxes, each contains sustained passages of calm introspection.