LISZT Complete Piano Music, Vol 46 – Berlioz Transcriptions
Naxos’s intrepid march through all Liszt’s piano music, begun 20 years ago, has now reached Vol 46. If Leslie Howard’s epic survey, 99 discs on Hyperion, is any measure, they’re not yet quite halfway there. The latest instalment is devoted entirely to Berlioz transcriptions, played by Feng Bian. A native of Chengdu, China, Bian has studied at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, at Yale and at the University of Southern California.
Bian’s programme spans the Berlioz-Liszt connection, one of the storied relationships between 19th-century composers. When they met in 1831 – Berlioz was 27 and Liszt 19 – their mutual admiration forged a friendship that would endure for 35 years. The earliest piece here, the overture Les francs-juges, dates from 1833, the year of the famous Symphonie fantastique transcription. The latest, the ‘March of the Pilgrims’ from Harold in Italy and the ‘Dance of the Sylphs’ from The Damnation of Faust are both from 1866, the year after Berlioz essentially ended things when he declared the first Paris performance of Liszt’s Missa solennis ‘the negation of art’.
The most successful of these interpretations derive from the more familiar Berlioz scores. A persuasive dreamy quality suffuses the ‘Dance of the Sylphs’. The ‘March to the Scaffold’, later and less pianistically demanding than the 1833 transcription of the entire symphony, scores a bull’s eye in its effective conjuration of the colours of the orchestral original. Liszt’s extended meditation on the idée fixe of the Fantastique emerges as a tender idyll of appealingly wistful innocence. Bian’s understated approach to the Pilgrims’ March from Harold, on the other hand, fails to leave much of an impression.
Though the Benediction and Oath from Cellini achieves a certain cumulative weight, the literally construed repeated chords of the finale grow tiresome. The longest work on the disc, the overture King Lear, seems to lose its way in a thicket of insufficiently differentiated recitative passages. Liszt carefully notated the orchestration of Berlioz’s overture to his unfinished youthful opera Les francs-juges, though not much of its flavour and vigour survives in this performance. In fact, for a sense of the atmosphere and urgency of the score, it’s probably best to look elsewhere.
For a sampling of the quicksilver synergy that the Berlioz-Liszt interaction could achieve, Roger Muraro’s recording of the Symphonie fantastique (Decca) is a good place to begin.