LISZT: Sacred Music Transcriptions (Philip Thomson/ Victor and Marina Ledin) (Naxos: 8.553659)
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Womaniser, romantic, extrovert and musical genius were the constituent parts of Franz Liszt. But below his ever changing personality was a deeply religious person, who, particularly in his younger life, had ideas of making his life in the church.
Born in Hungary in 1811, he was an infant prodigy, composing and playing in public by the age of 8, and money was found to ensure that he enjoyed the best possible education in Vienna. He was soon involved in aristocratic circles and met with such famous composers as Beethoven and Schubert.
When the family moved to Paris he was aged 13, and there he made a sensational debut, a success he repeated in England later in the year. At 16 his father died and he supported his mother as a popular pianist. His compositions were at first influenced by Chopin, Weber and Berlioz, and new works poured from his pen.
His success brought him financial rewards, though the help he gave to many young composers, gave an impression of greater wealth than actually existed. But when short of money, he simply returned to his life as a travelling virtuoso pianist.
In 1848 his life took another path, and he became conductor in Weimar. That gave him time to review and revise all his compositions to that time, and it was over the next twelve years that he wrote most of the works for which he is now best known.
Another romantic quest took him to Rome in 1861, and he made his home there until he died in 1886 during a visit to Bayreuth to see Wagner. It was during those last few years that the church eventually reclaimed him, and he took holy orders.
In addition to the enormous quantity of original compositions, Liszt produced a vast number of piano transcriptions of his own music written in another medium. This collection can be described as his 'Sacred Music Transcriptions'. Ironically they are some of his least sounding religious music, demonstrating the confused character that was Liszt.
The Hungarian Coronation Mass in 1867 for the coronation of Franz Josef I, and the booklet recounts the fascinating story of its first performance. His transcriptions of the Benedictus and Offertorium were made a few weeks later.
The other extensive work on the disc is the Eleven Chorales, which are a reworking of sacred songs. They come from 1870, and show the composer at his most devout and uncomplicated, the music being of the utmost simplicity.
At the other end of the spectrum we have Urbi et orbi, a challenging work for the soloist, and a most unusual and radical score of many surprises.
Apart from the l'hymne du pape and the Stabat Mater, the remaining works all come from his later period when the church was increasingly taking over his mind. He was still in his 'theatrical period' when he composed Stabat Mater (around 1845-7), and it could quite well have formed part of a popular cantata.
Philip Thomson is Canadian who was one of Abbey Simon's pupils at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. He came to national recognition when he won the Liszt Concerto Competition at Juilliard. Since then he has had a busy career as concert pianist throughout North America, and now is an active teacher. Gramophone magazine has described him as \a young Canadian of immense talent", and his previous discs in this series of Liszt has been highly acclaimed in the media.
Was made in the Fisher Hall in Santa Rosa, California, during June 1995.
Again this largely comes from Leslie Howard in his series for Hyperion, his being the only other version of the Chorales presently available. The ever generous Penguin Guide could only manage a two star rating. The Naxos disc is therefore the only alternative at around one third the price of Hyperion.