Liszt: Symphonic Poems (SACD review)

Ferenc Fricsay, RIAS Symphony Berlin; Stanislav Macura, Prague Radio Symphony; Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic; Rafael Kubelik, Bavarian Radio Symphony. Praga Digitals PRD/DSD 350 124.

This album makes me wonder how many other fine older recordings studios have on their shelves collecting dust and possibly never getting a transfer to CD. Of the four Liszt symphonic poems on the disc, two of them are currently unavailable on compact disc, and the others only appear coupled to other, longer items. Whatever, Praga Digitals have remastered four older Liszt recordings in hybrid SACD bi-channel, and the performances and sound are first-rate for any year.

As you undoubtedly know, the Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt (1811-86) practically invented the term "symphonic poem" as well as the form itself. Of course, program music has been around longer than Liszt; that is, music that depicts nonmusical ideas, such as Vivaldi's Four Seasons or Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony. But Liszt took program music a step further than mere imitation of things in nature, and he used thematic transformations to represent poetic emotions. It's a style that later composers like Richard Strauss would combine with program music to extend the form even more.

Les Preludes was the third of Liszt's symphonic poems. He premiered it in 1854 and published the score in 1856. The title refers to an Ode from Alphonse de Lamartine in Nouvelles méditations poétiques, written in 1823, although Liszt originally conceived it as an overture. In any case, the title has long given rise to discussion about what it actually means. What is the music a "prelude" or introduction to? While opinions differ on the matter (Liszt himself hinted that it suggested a prelude to his own path of composition), most listeners agree on the music's merits. It's exciting, uplifting, inspirational even, which is perhaps why most older folks will recognize it as the main theme music used throughout the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930's.

Ferenc Fricsay and the RIAS Symphony Berlin recorded the piece in 1956, and it remains among the best performances one can find. It may not convey quite the power or energy that Solti would later project, but it does sound more nuanced, more subtle, than Solti's performance and at the same time maintains a good level of involvement and forward momentum. Given the score's various mood changes, Fricsay does a good job holding it together in fine, dramatic fashion and ends it at full boil.

Ferenc Fricsay
Next on the program is Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo, the composer influenced by music he had heard in Venice and by a poem by Lord Byron. Liszt wrote of it, "Tasso loved and suffered at Ferrara, he was avenged at Rome, and even today lives in the popular songs of Venice. These three moments are inseparable from his immortal fame. To reproduce them in music, we first conjured up the great shade as he wanders through the lagoons of Venice even today; then his countenance appeared to us, lofty and melancholy, as he gazes at the festivities at Ferrara, where he created his masterworks; and finally we followed him to Rome, the Eternal City, which crowned him with fame and thus pays him tribute both as martyr and as poet."

Conductor Stanislav Macura conducts the Prague Radio Symphony in an appropriately atmospheric reading of the score. The conductor is serious to a fault, solemn, in fact, when need be, and melodramatic when the music calls for it, too. He easily keeps one engrossed in the presentation, which is mostly all one can ask of a conductor. The Prague ensemble play splendidly.

Liszt wrote Mazeppa in 1851, taking his inspiration from Victor Hugo and Lord Byron, all of them owing to the story of Ivan Mazeppa, who seduced a noble Polish lady and was tied naked to a wild horse that carried him to Ukraine, where he later achieved a rank of leadership. The music should evoke images of plains, silence, wonder, surprise, and triumph.

Here, the estimable Herbert von Karajan conducts the equally laudable Berlin Philharmonic in a lofty performance of real power, force, and size, which is about what we would come to expect from the glamorous conductor and his mighty assemblage of players.

The final symphonic poem on the program is one of Liszt's last and less well known, Die Ideale. Written in 1857-58, Liszt based the music on sections of a poem of the same name by German poet Friedrich Schiller. It may not be one of Liszt's most-popular pieces, but Maestro Rafael Kubelik gives it his all and helps to produce a reasonably notable performance, spoiled only by the recording's distracting, less-than-impressive live sound.

Karel Soukenik of Studio Domovina, Prague, remastered the recordings for hybrid SACD playback in 2017. Les Preludes derives from a studio stereo recording made in Berlin, 1956; Tasso from a studio stereo recording made in Prague, 1975; Mazeppa from a studio stereo recording made in Berlin, 1960; and Die Ideale from a live monaural recording, 1974.

The studio recordings all sound good, particularly in SACD, but, interestingly, it's the Preludes that sounds especially good, and it's the oldest of the lot. There's good clarity, good depth of field, and good dynamics. While there is some distortion at the high end, one can fairly easily live with it. Tasso, made almost twenty years later, is marginally smoother but no more transparent. Mazeppa sounds a tad brighter than the others, a touch glassier and less warm. There is, however, a better sense of space, of hall acoustics, here than in the other pieces. The live mono recording of Die Ideale, though, sounds worst of all because it's accompanied by an insistent background noise that's quite distracting and seems projected to every corner of the room.


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

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Meet the Staff

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 Jon 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 more than 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 simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
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.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa