Liszt: Symphonic Poems, Volume 4 (CD review)

Jun Markl, MDR Symphony Orchestra. MDR Klassik MDR 1204.

Program music (music that tells a story, represents a scene, or illustrates a point) has been around for a long time. Vivaldi (The Four Seasons), Beethoven (Pastoral Symphony, Wellington’s Victory), and Berlioz (Symphonie fantastique) all practiced and extended the range of such descriptive music. But critics generally agree it was Hungarian composer, pianist, conductor, and teacher Franz Liszt (1811-1886) who first applied the term “symphonic poem” to the genre of short narrative compositions he wrote and who certainly popularized the tone poem as we know it today. Maestro Jun Markl and the MDR Symphony Orchestra (Central German Radio Symphony, of which he was Principal Conductor from 2007-2012) here present Volume 4 of what I assume is their survey of Liszt’s complete symphonic poems. Oddly, however, I could not find anything about the first three volumes. Who knows: Maybe Markl is planning ahead by starting with Volume 4.

Anyway, the album contains four of Liszt’s symphonic poems, beginning with Prometheus, written in 1850 and revised in 1855. Liszt said he wasn't trying to retell the Prometheus legend but, rather, to create a series of moods related to the myth. Thus, we get music of a serious, contemplative, often bleak nature, with a dark, cloudy introduction and a series of melodramatic climaxes. That's just the way Markl presents it, although he may tame the dramatics just a bit, preferring a smoother, more sophisticated treatment of the story than some other conductors have given us. He never rushes the music but creates atmosphere at a relaxed but invigorating pace.

And so it goes throughout the program's other three tone poems. Under Markl, Les Preludes has a more studied feeling to it than an overtly exciting one as, say, Georg Solti offered in his London Philharmonic account (Decca). Les Preludes, premiered in 1854, may be familiar to different people for different reasons, by the way. The Nazis used it during the Second World War for propaganda purposes, forever clouding its appreciation for many listeners. For me, though, it will always represent the theme music for the old Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials of the Thirties. Thus, freed of any devious war connotations, the music has simply sounded thrilling and triumphant, a forerunner of John Williams's Star Wars and Indiana Jones material. Again, I like the way Markl allows the score to unfold at an unhurried pace, even if I miss some of the sense of urgency conveyed by the aforementioned Solti performance, as well as by Bernard Haitink, who may have provided the best of all worlds in his Philips recording, also with the LPO.

Next up is Hamlet, which Liszt wrote in 1858 and, of course, based on Shakespeare’s play. Liszt gave the character of Hamlet two distinct themes to represent the young man's indecisive nature: one theme slow and brooding, the other vigorous and volatile. Markl seems most successful here in clearly differentiating the two sides of the man. Liszt gives over the middle part of the poem to Ophelia, and, appropriately, Markl handles it as gently as possible. Despite the conductor making the music appear more drawn-out than usual, he turns in what is probably the best, most-characterful symphonic poem on the disc.

The final work on the program is for me the least interesting musically, though in some ways it’s the most ambitious. Liszt wrote Die Ideale in 1857 as a tribute to the German poet and philosopher Friedrich von Schiller, naming the piece after a Schiller poem of the same title. The composer divides the music into several parts, representing the general ideals of the poem: aspiration, struggle, achievement, fulfillment, and triumph. The music has always seemed a little long-winded to me, and Markl does it no favors with his kid-gloves treatment. While he clarifies every nuance of the music in some detail, he seems more preoccupied with precision and execution than in feeling, emotion, except in momentary spurts. Be that as it may, if you like this particular Liszt tone poem, you could do worse. At least Markl doesn't try to glorify the music or make it seem more grandiose than it is. If anything, his intellectualizing of it makes it all the more appealing, even to a doubter like me.

MDR Klassik made the recording in the main auditorium of the Leipzig MDR Studio on Augustus Platz in February 2011. The sound is very big, moderately close, and quite wide. Yet it also displays decent depth, air, and ambience, so it isn't particularly unnatural in its presentation. Good midrange clarity, reasonable frequency extensions, and a modest dynamic range also help in making the music come alive. No complaints here; it's actually some of the better sound you'll find in this music.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For over 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me--point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

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Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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