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.
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: