LISZT: Works for Piano and Orchestra, Volume 1
Fantasia on a Theme from Beethoven's Ruins of Athens, S.122. Grande fantaisie symphonique on Themes from Berlioz's Lélio, S.120. SCHUBERT-LISZT: Wandererfantaisie, S.366.  WEBER-LISZT: Polonaise brillante, S.367.
Louis Lortie, piano; Residentie Orchestra, The Hague/George Pehlivanian

Chandos CHAN 9801 (F) (DDD)  TT: 65:48

Chandos sensibly starts its Liszt series with four of the composer's less familiar arrangements, perhaps hoping to create a marketing wedge for the well-known concerti and other showpieces later. The performances are excellent. Louis Lortie, whom I've previously heard only in Mozart, has both the power and the dash required in this music, informed by solid musicianship and a "Classical" sense of rigor. Pehlivanian and the Dutch orchestra provide handsome, stylish support; the velvety, expressive principal clarinet deserves special commendation.

Nowadays, "arrangers" are pretty much relegated to the pop field, and generally try to make their work as unobtrusive as possible; in the nineteenth century, the rules were different. Two of these pieces are simple reworkings of others' solo piano music into concertante form, while the other two are original constructions on existing themes -- yet in three of the four cases, the dominant compositional voice turns out to be Liszt's!

Not that the personalities of the original composers can be completely submerged. The dignified, proportioned writing at the start of the Ruins of Athens fantasy, for example, especially the beautiful woodwind cantabiles, are unmistakably Beethoven at his most lyrical and appealing. But the piano's entrance flourishes are equally unmistakably Liszt. As the piece proceeds, it accumulates an energy and rhythmic zest worthy of a full-fledged Liszt concerto; even the well-known march theme arrives bedecked with mercurial high piano figurations.

Similarly, Berlioz's questing anxiety is evident in the opening phrases of the Lélio fantasy, and in occasional details presumably carried over from that composer's orchestration (the stabbing, repeated trumpet notes, for example). But Liszt expands the music's amplitude, filling it out with piano figurations that are both impressive as pure display and emotionally expressive as well.

In the Weber, a straight piano-and-orchestra reworking of the original, Liszt does maintain some of the original German Romantic feeling in the horn chorales near the start. The piece is pleasant listening; the closing section, with its heavily marked polonaise "swing," puts a rousing cap on it.

Schubert's Wanderer, with its extended ritornello-like beginning and numerous question-and-answer passages, lends itself easily to Liszt's concertante rethinking. This is the only piece here that doesn't get submerged into pure Liszt, but neither does Schubert dominate the proceedings. It is, rather, Beethoven who speaks most clearly in the granitic strength of the string passages, the round, full-throated horn phrases, and the sprightly 6/8 rhythm of the third movement; the whole thing sounds like a miniature Beethoven concerto. Liszt's own sense of theater comes through in the Adagio, where after an extended piano solo, he reserves the quiet string entry so as to heighten the most dramatic moment.

These accomplished performances, wrapped in rich sound, promise much for the anticipated further installments of the series.