Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsodies (CD review)

Also, Les Preludes; Mazeppa; Battle of the Huns; Mephisto Waltz No. 1. Hermann Scherchen, Vienna State Opera Orchestra. Westminster Legacy 289 471 237-2 (2-disc set).

For those of you old enough to remember the original Westminster label, it was one of the most "major" of the minor record companies and produced classical LPs from the early Fifties to the mid Sixties. At various times ABC, MCA, and most recently DG owned or distributed the recordings themselves, and one could also often find them under the "Music Guild" appellation. Anyway, in the early 2000's they began reappearing again on the original Westminster label, and I found a few of their reissues quite welcome, like this one.

Hermann Scherchen, one of the old Westminster company's biggest stars, conducts the present release, and it features Westminster's famous "natural balance" sound. Scherchen (1881-1966) could hold his own with any modern interpreter, and given the age of the recordings, 1958-1960, they, too, sound remarkably good. Here, Scherchen is leading the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, which included mainly members of the Vienna Philharmonic, so there's not a lot of doubt about the quality of the music making, even though the Opera Orchestra doesn't sound as luxuriously polished as the Philharmonic, and intonation doesn't appear as solid. Who knows.

Hermann Scherchen
While Scherchen could occasionally be overly enthusiastic in his conducting, even leaning to eccentricity at times, here he eschews too much bombast, something these Liszt works can easily succumb to, the conductor handling some of the showier sections with a pleasing refinement and nuance. The Rhapsodies, which appear to be mainly Liszt's own orchestrations of his piano works rather than some of the more popular reworkings, don't always come off as glamorously or dynamically as, say, Dorati's (Mercury), Boskovsky's (EMI), or Stokowski's (JVC or RCA), but Scherchen skillfully manages each piece, providing them with plenty of reserved flair and inner feeling. OK, to be fair, maybe he's too cultured in these pieces for some tastes, but, whatever.

Les Preludes, Mazeppa, and the Battle of the Huns on the other hand, sound as powerful as they come, so I suppose that makes up for a little less drama earlier. Then, oddly, the Mephisto Waltz appears to drag a bit. Go figure. What's important is that each listener will have his or her own personal likes and dislikes.

The remastered sound from 2001, using a process called "Original Image-Bit Processing," is fine and captures the natural quality of the music making. There is, however, a fair degree of background noise on some of the 1958 recordings, especially, tape hiss and miscellaneous soft thumps and gurgles. It's not enough of a distraction to put one off the music, but it is present, nonetheless, so I thought I'd mention it. Otherwise, the sound is very slightly soft and a tad rough, but it is extremely well imaged left to right, with a reasonable amount of detail and orchestral depth. Offered at a low price, this two-disc set seems a safe bet for the Liszt lover.


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

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa