Franz Liszt Ilan Volkov Three Funeral OdesFranz Liszt
Three Funeral Odes

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov, conductor

Hyperion, 2011

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This recording was released on the occasion of the bicentenary of Franz Liszt’s birth with the aim of introducing the public to some little known masterpieces of the Hungarian composer and virtuoso, whose production for piano has enjoyed so much success to overshadow the compositions for orchestra. In this particular case, I must say that it is a pity that the funeral odes, despite their lugubrious and gloomy character, are not performed more often.

The first work of Three Funeral Odes is Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe, Liszt’s last symphonic poem, composed in 1881, twenty years after the previous one, and is inspired by a triptych of Mihály Zichy, a Hungarian painter contemporary of Liszt. Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe represents the stages of human life: The Cradle (Die Wiege), The Struggle for Life (Der Kampf ums Dasein) and The grave, cradle of life after death (Zum Grabe, die Wiege des zukunftigen Lebens).

The second part of the album is reserved for Trois Odes funèbres, composed between 1860 and 1866, of which Les mortes (The deads) were probably inspired by the death of Liszt’s son Daniel (1859), while La notte (The night) should be inspired by the death of his daughter Blandine (1862).

The last part presents Aus zwei Episoden Lenaus Faust (1856-61), which enjoyed a certain celebrity in the late XIX century.

Liszt intended this pieces as a cycle, but before this recording the three compositions had never been performed together. This album, which involves the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov’s baton, offers the rare opportunity to hear the complete cycle, with the result of producing on the listener a sense of unease and anguish, that some brief moments in which the atmosphere seems to lighten (as at the beginning Le triomphe funebre du Tasse) are not enough to dissipate. This happens when the chorus suddently enters in the last movement of Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe. With its oppressive singing becomes almost intolerable to a sensitive listener, who would be very little reassured by the final recomposition.

Of the Trois Odes funèbres the most impressive, the one that truly represents the descent into a dark and distressing world, is La notte: here you have really the impression of visiting «the undiscover’d country, from whose bourn no traveller returns» with no hope and no relief. The same can be also applied to Zwei aus Episoden Lenaus Faust.

Such an effect would not have been possible with a less sensitive conductor as Volkov, which performes the three compositions with great skill, though with some hint of fatigue at some point where it would be more appropriate to emphasize. This is only a meticulous observation, anyway, and it loses itself in a judgment that on the whole is more than positive.

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