Sunday, 3 April 2016

Swiss pianist Praxedis Genevieve Hug in Liszt rarities on Sony Classical

On Wings of Song - Liszt - Praxedis Genevieve Hug - RCA Red Seal
Liszt tra0nscriptions; Praxedis Genevive Hug; Sony Classical
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 22 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Young Swiss pianist brings out the poetry in some of Liszt's lesser known transcriptions

In the late 1970's and 1980's I was lucky enough to catch the great Scots composer-pianist Ronald Stevenson in a number of lecture recitals (one I heard was his 1976 recital The Transcendental Tradition which is now available on disc). In one of them he commented that if the entire corpus of 19th century music was wiped out except that of Liszt, we would still have a great deal. Such was Liszt's compulsion to transcribe and arrange the great music of his day for his own solo piano.

There is a lot of it, as anyone who knows Leslie Howard's landmark 99 disc set on Hyperion will realise,  only a handful of Liszt's transcriptions are well known and this new three-disc set from the Swiss pianist Praxedis Genevieve Hug on RCA Red Seal gives us a generous selection of some of the lesser known transcriptions.

The discs are arranged thematically with one devoted to music inspired by Rossini including the Soirees Musicales de Rossini, the second disc is devoted to song transcriptions based on music by Liszt himself and Robert Schumann as well as lesser known names such as Leo Festetics, Josef Theodor Krov, Ernst von Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha (Prince Albert's brother), Joseph Dessauer, and Otto Lessmann. The final disc is devoted to Liszt's transcriptions of Wagner, covering the operas Tannhäuser, Der fliegende Holländer, Die Meistersinger, Tristan und Isolde, the Ring, Parsifal and Rienzi. The music on the disc covers a variety of genres ranging from a relatively straight forward transcription through to a fantasie or pot pourri based on themes from the work.

With the song transcriptions part of the reason for doing them was Liszt's challenge to himself to create the sense of legato from the vocal line with a more pianistic accompaniment. And in each of the song transcription we hear the composer move from a fairly straight transcription through to something more complex and free, as he repeats the material with that little bit of extra fantasy. Another reason for the transcriptions, particularly those using material from Wagner's operas, was to make the music more widely available in an age before recording or broadcasts.

 The problem with recording Liszt is that he wrote music for his own incredible technique. But for many of these pieces, the music is not actually about technique but about expressivity. The pianist needs to conquer the technical aspects and then get beyond them. There can be occasional showy flurries but the music is not always about show. That said, the performer has to have something of the showman about them too!
I have to confess that I found the first two items in the Rossini disc, Impromptu brillant sur de themes de Rossini et Spontini and Sept variations brillantes sur un theme de Rossini, less than absorbing Both are relatively early (1824) and seem to be far more about showing off than musical content. The transcription of Rossini's Soirees Musicales (dating from the 1830s) are great fun and though Liszt does introduce extra material, Hug makes Rossini's wit and voice come through and makes us smile.

The majority of song transcriptions on the disc are for works which are not known nowadays, this means that the works come over more as fantasie impromptus than transcriptions. In each song Liszt starts off relatively conservatively but then works his magic and Hug is adept at bringing out the translucent qualities of Liszt's music with some really magical textures. In some cases, where Liszt is transcribing a less than inspired song he transforms base metal into if not gold, at least something more precious. (Many of the song transcriptions were made as gestures of friendship to lesser known composers).

She opens the Wagner disc with perhaps the best known transcription in the set, and here we can start to appreciate Hug's approach to Liszt's transcriptions. She seems to be most in tune with his more poetic side, she clearly can bring out all the technical bravura needed as well as a very firm touch. But though there are some impressive moments, it is the more thoughtful sections which impress. In fact, she does not perform the best known Tannhäuser transcription (the overture) but the later transcription of the Pilgrims Chorus, still demanding but with a far more poetic sense towards the end. Time and again on this disc it is the poetry which comes out and you feel that Hug would be at home in Liszt's more abstract, transcendent pieces.

The piano is recorded quite resonantly so that when we hear her going at it, there is a lot of back wash from the piano with a strongly resonant lower register. We never lose clarity but for me it is not quite an ideal sound and certainly it is a long way from the sound Liszt would have created in his day (though we have to admit that during Liszt's lifetime piano technology changed at a remarkable rate)

Occasionally, I wanted a bit more barnstorming. Not necessarily volume, but a sense of virtuoso bravura. At the beginning of this review I commented about getting beyond the showy elements to the music, but on these discs I feel that Hug perhaps goes too far and she should more consciously show off. The repertoire on the disc has been deliberately chosen to concentrate on the lesser known works by Liszt and the disc does indeed shed light on forgotten corners of the repertoire. But from a purely programming point of view I think a few bon-bons in amongst the music would not have come amiss.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) - Piano Transcriptions
Praxedis Genevieve Hug (piano)
RCA RED SEAL 88750 69972 3CD's [70.01, 53.44, 62.47]

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