What drove his contemporaries and later critics of his music to denigrate and marginalize Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886) as a mere virtuoso keyboardist whose large-scale compositions qualified only as awkward or embarrassing curiosities that fit influentially nowhere in music-history? The jealousy of his performer-contemporaries must have contributed. Competing with Liszt, as keyboardist, was enough; acknowledging his compositional originality implied too much. Then again, after Mendelssohn's death in 1848 and with Schumann's decline into mental illness around the same time, Liszt suddenly became the most conspicuous living German composer. Berlioz was French and Wagner was not yet established; and Wagner was an opera-composer, not a symphonist. Ensconced as Kapellmeister in Weimar, with a court-orchestra at his disposal and a ducal blank check to underwrite his experiments, Liszt found himself in a position to hone his compositional skills and give almost free reign to his ideas about what might be done with the inherited form of the sonata, the symphony, and the suite.
A result of Liszt's meditations was the series of "Symphonic Poems," beginning with "Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne" in 1847 and concluding thirty-six years later with "Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe." The thirteen "Symphonic Poems" vary greatly. Some, like "Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne" and "Die Ideale" (1857), resemble actual symphonies: one may analyze them into a three- or four-movement pattern resembling that established by Haydn and Beethoven. These works differ from standard-issue symphonies, however, in incorporating characteristic gestures from operatic and theatrical music. The opening bars of "Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne," for example, with the string tremolo in the bass register and the quiet drums, are scene-painting, suggesting the waves that crash on the shore at the beginning of the Victor Hugo poem that inspired Liszt. "Die Ideale" gives the impression of a linked series of operatic scenes that depict the gradual transformation of the protagonist. What all the "Symphonic Poems" have in common is the technique that Liszt invented for them: the so-called metamorphosis of the theme. Thus all the sections of "Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne" and all the sections of "Die Ideale" find unity through derivation from basic intervals that Liszt introduces in the opening bars. The metamorphosis of the theme would prove a watershed in the post-Beethoven development of orchestral music. Alexander Glazunov in Russia, César Franck in France, Antonin Dvorak in Bohemia, and Jean Sibelius in Finland would all borrow Liszt's innovation. So would Liszt's successors in the German-speaking countries, Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg.
Interest in Liszt's "Symphonic Poems" has had its phases. For many years, record-collectors knew only "Les préludes" (1848) and "Orpheus" (1854), among the tamest of the thirteen. "Orpheus" began life as an overture and is formally the most orthodox of the set; "Les préludes" resembles a compressed four-movement symphony. Thirty years ago, Bernard Haitink boldly recorded all thirteen of the "Symphonic Poems," leading the Concertgebouw Orchestra, with the set appearing on the Philips label. About the same time, Vox assigned Siegfried Landauer and the Music for Westchester Symphony Orchestra to make a "Vox Box" of the same works. Haitink's interpretation could be purchased in the 1990s as two double-compact-disc sets and might still be available; Landauer's has disappeared, unfortunately. Two or three Hungarian orchestras have traversed the baker's dozen of these scores over the years. James Conlon and Kurt Masur entered the lists in the same repertory in the early 1990s, although availability is again a question. Recently, both Naxos and Chandos have commenced surveys of Liszt's innovative sequence. Naxos employs Michael Halász, a Hungarian, and Chandos employs Milan-born Gianandrea Noseda; they record with the New Zealand Symphony and the BBC Philharmonic respectively.
Noseda's program embraces the two best-known items from Liszt's cycle, "Les préludes" and "Orpheus," but extends also to "Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne" and "Tasso, Lamento e Triunfo" (1849). I can remember no previous recorded performance that treats "Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne" so effectively, beginning with the impressionistic opening bars, where the low strings deliver an especially ominous tremolo and the timpanist adds his emphasis at precisely the right dynamic level. An unsympathetic critic of Liszt once described this "Mountain Symphony" as consisting structurally of "a prelude to a prelude to a prelude." The charge is unfair, but a slack performance might make it seem that way. Noseda does push a bit faster that Haitink, but he also brings out the contrasts, which Haitink tended to smooth over. Noseda performs the same service for "Tasso, Lamento e Triunfo," but here he mitigates the bombast of the concluding section, making the whole score seem more dignified than it sometimes does. In "Les préludes," Noseda honors the basic symphonic structure; he also reminds us how much the chorale-like finale, with its blaring brass, anticipates a Bruckner-finale. The sound of this Chandos disc helps in "Orpheus," the quietest of the "Symphonic Poems," and one with an important role for the solo harp (naturally, given the subject). In short, Noseda makes one of the best cases yet for the seriousness of these works. A second volume in the series has appeared, featuring the "Faust Symphony" and the late addition to the "Symphonic Poems," "Von der Wiege bis zum grabe."