The anniversaries are coming thick and fast, and Franz Liszt – a composer who still resists posterity's attempts to categorize – is set to get the treatment in 2011. These releases are most welcome in addressing one section of his work that remains little known: the songs. It comes as no surprise, perhaps, that Hyperion is in on the act; the British label has donemore to for song lovers than anyone else, while their massive survey of Liszt's complete piano music (played by Leslie Howard, who co-curates this series with its accompanist, Julius Drake) is due for a box-set reissue early in the New Year.
On this occasion Hyperion face a challenge from the Austrian label Marsyas, whose series is in part a complement to a new edition of the songs to be published in Vienna. With pianist Charles Spencer at the helm, it has the support of several venerable academic institutions, with the added advantage of being issued on SACD. Its roots in such a publishing enterprise, however, make it all the more surprising that the accompanying documentation is so sparse. Liszt's songs are especially complicated in terms of versions, and while the Hyperion disc is accompanied by an eloquent commentary by Susan Youans, dates of composition and clearly explained version numbers, Marsyas only provide a general blurb on 'Franz Liszt' and 'The Song', with no dates or explanations. Version numbers can, admittedly, be deduced from the Searle numbers, but anyone wanting information on the dates of composition – as collectors of such complete editions invariably will – has to find it elsewhere.
While the Marsyas issues fail to demonstrate the advantages one would expect from being associated with a learned musicological exercise, they do not escape the associated disadvantages. In this case that translates into a feeling in the actual performances of a dutiful run-through; they show us how the songs go but do little to persuade us of their merits. Adrian Eröd admittedly is lumbered with some of Liszt's less edifying efforts: there's little he can do with 'Le juif errant', for example, which at over ten minutes long begins to border on parody – composed in 1847, it has echoes of Wagner's Flying Dutchman, with which it shares a central poetic theme. It receives its premiere recording here, we are told, as do the later baritone version of the three Petrarch Sonnets and the Wilhelm Tell Songs, which remove much of the essential passion and ardour of the originals. Throughout, unfortunately, Eröd sounds a little under-rehearsed, often singing flat. He shows a good command of languages, though, called upon to sing in English and Hungarian as well as French, German and Italian.
For the second volume, Spencer is joined by mezzo-soprano Janina Baechle. She is a singer new to me and whose booklet biography is full of the kind of bizarre hyperbole that is hardly ingratiating. Hers is a voice of some richness and beauty, though, and she brings a lovely sense of calm to 'Über aller Gipfeln is Ruh', and creates a nice sense of pathos to the final stanza of 'Verlassen', even if the voice seems ill-suited to the Schumannesque world 'Einst wollt' ich einen Kranz'. Most listeners will prefer the greater sense of drama Fassbaender brings to 'Die Loreley', however, and Baechle, like Eröd, does suffer occasional problems with intonation.
If it weren't for the arrival of the first volume of Hyperion's Liszt series, then the Marsyas issues would be recommendable for their completeness, if nothing else. It is not explicitly stated whether Hyperion too plan to record unpublished works – if Howard's set of the piano music is anything to go by, I'm sure they will – but their series is clearly the one to back. Not only is Julius Drake's playing more imaginative and delicately virtuosic than Spencer's but, if Matthew Polenzani turns out to be representative, Hyperion's singers will more effectively force a reappraisal of the dustier corners of Liszt's song output. Polenzani is at his best in the Petrarch Sonnets and the Tell songs, which are both given in their extravagent (and extravagently demanding) earlier versions. He shows an astonishing technical command and has these songs reliably in his range – a range that extends to a top C-sharp in 'Pace non trovo'. The timbre of the voice itself, however, occasionally underlines the songs' lachrymose tendencies, while the sheer security means we miss out on the edge-of-your-seat vocal heroism we get from other singers – Margaret Price with Cyprien Katsaris in the Sonnets, for example. Like Eröd, he can do little to help Liszt at his most sentimental, and in 'Kling leise, mein Lied' and 'Angiolin dal biondo crin' the results still verge on the saccharine.
It will be interesting to see how this new exposure to Liszt's songs will affect the inevitable reappraisals of the man and his work that the anniversary year will bring. And while, as Youens argues in her essay for Hyperion's disc, Liszt clearly provides a link between Schubert and Wolf, composing his piano parts with an orchestral palette, he also undeniably lacks Wolf's penchant for the aphoristic. As these surveys continue, that lack might start to wear. People will have to make their own minds up, but it looks like Hyperion will provide the best way to do so.
By Hugo Shirley