When Franz Liszt died in 1886, months short of his 75th birthday, he left one of the largest and most diverse bodies of music composed in the 19th century. There’s an innovative and influential body of orchestral music; about 130 choral works, sacred and secular; a smattering of chamber music; several volumes of organ music; and some 430 individual piano works that extended the instrument’s potential. Small wonder that his 75 or so songs have been overshadowed and are rarely heard.
Beginning in 2010, the distinguished English pianist Julius Drake set out to remedy this neglect with a recording project encompassing all the songs. The American musicologist Susan Youens, an authority on the 19th-century song, serves as adviser and provides the excellent booklet notes. The most recent installment in the series includes German and French songs spanning 40 years, sung by the ravishing American mezzo Sasha Cooke.
Liszt sometimes returned to the same text three or four times over decades. For instance, he set a tiny poem by Charlotte von Hagn, “Was Liebe Sie,” first in 1843. A decade later, he revisited it, and yet again in 1879. Cooke’s and Drake’s distinct characterizations of each of the three versions, increasingly subtle and succinct, are delightful.
Not surprisingly for a seasoned Mahler and Berlioz singer, Cooke’s vocal and dramatic gifts are shown to greatest advantage in two larger-scale songs, Goethe’s “Kennst du das Land” and Heine’s ballad “Die Loreley.” She successfully negotiates the challenges to her top and bottom ranges in “Die Loreley,” vividly relating the tale of the river siren.
Most remarkable, however, are the seven latest songs on the disc. Cooke and Drake lavish sympathy and understanding on these challenging exemplars of Liszt’s austere, introverted and prophetic late style.
Scriabin’s symphonies don’t get much play time these days. A 2014 performance of the fourth symphony (“Le Poème de l'extase”) by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was a rare exception. Near the end of Valery Gergiev’s tenure as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, the Russian conductor led a cycle of live recordings of the Scriabin symphonies. After a first disc containing the third and fourth symphonies, the second volume, devoted to the first two youthful symphonies, was released in May. All were recorded in a three-concert series in 2014, which also included the only remaining symphony, “Prometheus: The Poem of Fire,” hopefully also to be released soon.
Scriabin wrote his first two symphonies within a couple of years of each other, between 1899 and 1902, when he was still in his late 20s. Anatoly Lyadov, to whom Scriabin owed much in his early career, conducted both of the premieres with some success. The young composer’s musical influences are still quite obvious in the first symphony: The first movement could serve as an entirely unneeded postlude to Wagner’s “Parsifal,” and the dance-like fourth movement recalls the ballets of Tchaikovsky, including a crazy duet for piccolo and glockenspiel in a fairy tale scene with flute and solo violin. The overwrought sixth movement often sounds like a bad Italian opera, with mezzo-soprano and tenor solos, here Ekaterina Sergeeva and Alexander Timchenko, belting out Scriabin’s own doggerel poetry. Lyadov was right to omit this movement from the first performance, over Scriabin’s objections.
The second symphony is more polished, even restrained by this composer’s standards, and one misses the quirkier edges of Scriabin’s musical eccentricity. Gergiev shapes some sweetly operatic moments, with generally fine playing by the members of the LSO, including ardent violin solos, paired with avian twittering of the flute in the third movement. In both symphonies, Gergiev remains close to the timings of Vladimir Ashkenazy's excellent Scriabin cycle, which remains the gold standard for the complete set. The most striking difference from Ashkenazy's interpretation is the second movement of the first symphony (“Allegro dramatico”), which Gergiev takes much slower than Ashkenazy, wringing the drama out of the score in ways other than a fast tempo.