I wish I could give more credit to Gianandrea Noseda and his complete recording of Liszt's symphonic poems. It's been a while - some two decades, indeed - since the last such achievement by Arpad Joo and the Budapest Symphony (Hungaroton, 1984-85); before that, as far as I know, only twice more were all 13 symphonic poems recorded: 1968-71 by Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic for DECCA; and 1978-81 by Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus for EMI. (I don't, of course, forget Nikolai Golovanov's stupendous set for Melodya recorded in pretty inferior sound in 1952-53, even though it lacks the last of the poems; unfortunately, the complete set seems to be unobtainable, at least in CD format). So, in terms of complete recordings, the field is not so crowded. Leaving aside Noseda's renditions of the 'Faust' and 'Dante' symphonies as well as the two Legendes which I don't think anybody else has recorded, how does the Italian stand in a highly subjective comparison with the Dutch, the German and the Hungarian?
Like Masur, Noseda is rather on the fast side, but, very much unlike Masur indeed, he also has a good deal of common sense; so his interpretations are generally free of the odious mannerism and abominable rushing so characteristic of Masur's readings - the most over-rated conductor in Liszt as far as I am concerned. The major problem with Noseda's conducting is the same as with Haitink's, only it is greatly aggravated in this case. Where Haitink is just restrained and won't allow his passion a free reign, Noseda is so mild and meek and gentle and kind - that he becomes thoroughly un-Lisztian and positively dull. To be sure, he has some interesting touches - more prominent strings here and there, delicate fluctuations in the woodwinds, etc. - but on the whole, for my part, Noseda is my last choice of complete set of Liszt's symphonic poems - with the exception of the messy Masur, of course. Though fine musician and dedicated Lisztian, Noseda has neither the musicianship of a Bernard Haitink, nor the understanding of an Arpad Joo. The latter, as I have repeated many times, remains the finest set overall, despite the somewhat inadequate sound of Hungaroton.
Speaking of sound, Noseda is of course splendidly recorded; it could hardly have been otherwise: the four works on this CD were recorded in December 2006. Still, though they provide a crystal clear sound, Chandos are no DECCA - and the BBC Philharmonic ('universally recognised as one of Britain's finest orchestra', as the liner notes grandly tell us) is no London Philharmonic either, for that matter. The result is that Haitink's vintage analogue is definitely superior to Chandos' late digital recording; on the other hand, the latter is much better balanced than the stuff EMI provided for Masur and it has greater depth and clarity than Hungaroton's sound for Arpad Joo.
This particular CD, volume 3 from Noseda's five-volume Lisztian quest, collects four symphonic poems, the first three of which are among Liszt's finest; and the fourth is only slightly below that level. They all illustrate Noseda's shortcomings with painful vividness. Take the tempestuous 'Mazeppa', for instance, in which the glorious march at the finale sounds pretty much like a minuet from a mediocre eighteenth-century symphony. Continuing the same analogy, the fiery and passionate 'Prometheus' is almost as timid as a scherzo from an early nineteenth-century symphony; needless to say, it hardly conveys Liszt's intentions of 'Suffering and Apotheosis!', as he exclaimed in the preface to the score. Noseda's brisk tempi work fine in the elegiac 'Heroide Funebre' and especially in the jaunty 'Festklänge', but the dark, brooding character of the main theme of the former is largely lost, and the latter's climaxes certainly need a more unbridled approach.
All in all, Noseda's Liszt is indeed a DDD recording: Decent, Dependable, and Dull. I daresay it is not a bad first choice - it is certainly better than Masur - but it falls short of what Haitink and Joo have to offer. Besides, the complete sets by the last two come at great bargain prices, whereas Noseda's cycle is available only separately, and Chandos are not among the cheapest labels anyway. The CD is nicely produced, though, and comes with a fine, albeit slightly perfunctory, liner notes by Jonathan Summers which can be downloaded for free from Chandos' website. They contain an introduction which is common to all five CDs in the series and a specific part dedicated to the poems included here. Mr Summers should be congratulated on his perspicacity in realising that with these works Liszt wanted to express 'overall mood or character rather than specific details', a point of great importance which still eludes many people. Mr Summers' idea to quote extensively from Liszt's prefaces is another highly commendable feature of his essays. There has been a great deal of speculation how much of these prefaces were written by Liszt himself and how much by the dedicatee of the poems, his mistress Princess Carolyne, but this is missing the point. Liszt took the responsibility of these prefaces and they no doubt represent his views and ideas very accurately. Sometimes they are greatly revealing indeed.