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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Comprehensive Liszt

Bicentennial Brings Five Big Box Sets.
An old-school "Liszt box." This one plays a Hungarian Rhapsody.
Photo from Harp Gallery

2011 marks Franz Liszt's 200th birthday. Had the old gentleman been around for the birth, death, and (occasional, sputtering) revival of the classical music recording industry, he might have been amused to learn of the slew of boxed sets bearing his name and likeness that have issued forth this year.

Here's a quick overview, organized by weight:

Liszt: The Piano Collection 
(EMI Classics, 10 Discs)Various Artists
This is a solid reissue focusing only on Liszt works for solo piano. It features György Cziffra's energetic versions of the Hungarian Rhapsodies, paired with the ruminative Années de pèlerinage from Italian pianist Aldo Ciccolini. The late, eccentric British virtuoso John Ogdon also contributes to this fine set. Sadly, no opera transcriptions are included.

Liszt: Master and Magician: The Masterworks Collection
(Sony Classical, 25 CDs, 1 DVD). Various Artists
This box features all-star lineup of pianists (Vladimir Horowitz, Evgeny Kissin, Jorge Bolet, Van Cliburn) and conductors contribute to this stellar overview set, which digs deeply into the old Columbia Records catalogue. Newer recordings made under the Sony Classical imprint are also included, and the overall effect is a fairly comprehensive look at the long, varied career of Franz Liszt. Some interesting piano transcriptions here, with Glenn Gould's take on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and Schubert songs played by Mr. Kissin. Also includes the Grand Mass and a sampling of Liszt's organ music.

A Liszt Portrait (Brilliant Classics, 31 discs)
Various Artists
A respectable entry with both orchestral pieces, piano music and some choral music--but no Christus. The Brilliant set combines modern performances of good quality, some of them from orchestras and pianists that you may have never heard of, with ten discs worth of historical issues. Some interesting gems here: Maria Yudina playing a set of variations, early Evgeny Kissin performances, Alfred Brendel's Tannhäuser transcription. For the Liszt nut who already has everything else.

The Liszt Collection (Deutsche Grammophon, 34 discs)
Various Artists
Another "limited edition" from DG, this set combines some fascinating out-of-print recordings (Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle in the Faust and Dante Symphonies) with more familiar Liszt works.

The twelve symphonic poems are split between labels, with Solti (Decca) Haitink (Philips) and von Karajan (DG) all contributingto make a "greatest hits" version. Also contains complete reissues of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's invaluable two-disc survey of Liszt liederLazar Berman's Annees de un pelerenage and Roberto Szidon's kick-ass Hungarian Rhapsodies. A good overview with the exceptional sound quality one expects from DG. If the set had included Jorge Bolet's nine discs of Decca recordings it would be hard to beat.

Liszt: The Complete Piano Music (Hyperion, 99 Discs)
Leslie Howard, Piano.
Here it is. The heavyweight champion: Leslie Howard's exhaustive, exhausting survery of all the Liszt piano works, recorded for British label Hyperion over the last three decades, all in sparkling, absolutely perfect digital sound.

This bread-box of a set includes all the familiar works, along with the complete opera transciptions, the symphony transcriptions (Beethoven and Berlioz) and a few fascinating works that may or may not be from Liszt's pen. The decision to include multiple and alternate versions of Liszt works, makes this set an invaluable resource to the serious scholar of Liszt or piano music in general. You may not want to load all of these versions into your IPod, but their scholarly value is beyond dispute.

Retailing at over $300 (though it can be found for less with some effort) this is an investment. But is not an overstatement to call this large, handsome box (which includes a comprehensive softcover book) a veritable gold mine of musical inspiration. And a week's worth of listening if you play the whole set without a break.

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