Le Romantique

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Le Romantique

Johann Kaspar Mertz was the greatest guitar composer of the Romantic era. As well-
known and respected as he was in his day, he had been all but forgotten in ours. David
Leisner’s debut recording in 1980 was the first to call attention to the significance of
Mertz’s music, and since then many recordings by other fine guitarists have appeared
which have featured his work. This new CD continues the exploration of this great
music, with excerpts from the monumental Bardenklänge collection, the Elegy, which
is possibly the great guitar piece of the 19th century, the lesser known gem and title
track, Le Romantique, the virtuosic showpiece, Hungarian Fantasy, and Mertz’s
gorgeous arrangements of six Schubert Lieder.

“This disc shines with thoughtful musicianship and sensitive interpretations…Interpreted with
maturity and finesse, these pieces run the gamut of gesture and emotion.” Acoustic Guitar

“A musical risk taker not afraid of bold gestures…Leisner’s interpretations carry a conviction
and dramatic punch that is as invigorating as it is rare in the guitar world.”
American Record Guide

“Leisner’s elegant and invigorating performances should provide a wake-up call for guitarists
who want to take their repertoires in new directions”. Gramophone

“Mertz deserves to be ranked with masters such as Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and
Liszt…winsomely performed and elegantly recorded”. Fanfare

“Truly beautiful…His reading is informed by a profound sensibility that succeeds in rendering
the full ardour and romanticism of Mertz’s music.”  Il Fronimo

“Leisner is entirely sympathetic to the idiom of the music, delivering the more dazzling pieces
with the right degree of virtuosity and bringing a poetic sensibility to the more reflective
pieces.” Classical Guitar

“Leisner’s performance of these pieces is remarkable…The Elegy in particular grows richer
with each listening. From its solemn opening, Leisner deftly evolves it through grief, anguish,
and finally, loss.”
Guitar Review

Gramophone magazine review, January 2004:

A welcome journey beyond the Spanish borders with a master guitarist

David Leisner’s journey through guitar repertoire has taken him far beyond the Spanish
terrain. Here he ventures into Central European works of the first half of the 19th century,
exploring music by two composers who were partial to the instrument. Johann Kaspar Mertz
(1806-1856) not only wrote superbly for guitar but also evidently played it supremely well.
Franz Schubert may not have done either, but the six songs Leisner performs suggest that
this composer had a splendid idea of the guitar’s intimate capabilities.

Hearing Schubert songs without the texts could have the effect of transforming masterpeices
into shallow sonic vessels. No problem. Mertz’s arrangements (with editorial touches by
Leisner for clarity of voicing and harmony) are deft, balancing what formerly were vocal lines
with the accompaniment in a subtle and colourful manner. Even a beloved piece like
Ständchen loses none of its melancholic beauty in this slightly altered version. Leisner, in
any case, is a musician whose sense of line is so expressive that Schubert’s phrases are
eloquently shaped.

In Leisner’s hands, Mertz emerges as a significant musical figure whose ardent and buoyant
romanticism suits the guitar beautifully. There are felicities throughout his Op. 13 collection
Bardenklänge, of which Leisner offers five selections, while three other works (Elegy and Le
Romantique , both without opus numbers, and Hungarian Fantasy , Op. 65, No. 1) also are
prime examples of Mertz’s mastery in the realm of character pieces. Leisner’s elegant and
invigorating performances should provide a wake-up call for guitarists who want to take their
repertoires in new directions – and for listeners eager for a vacation from music of the Iberian
peninsula.

Donald Rosenberg

Fanfare magazine review, March/April 2004:

David Leisner claims that Johann Kaspar Mertz (1806-1856) was the preeminent romantic
composer for the guitar. This winsomely performed and elegantly recorded program strongly
supports this claim. Why then have so few of us heard of Mertz? Leisner explains this as the
negative influence of Andres Segovia, who reestablished the guitar as a classical concert
instrument, but did not like Mertz. Surely there is more to it than this, however. The Germans,
Austrians and Czechs hardly required a Spanish virtuoso to remind them of their musical
past. The concert guitar simply went out of fashion in the era dominated by bigger-than-life
pianists and violinists, 100-piece sumphony orchestras and grand opera.

Leisner refers to Mertz’s works as “character pieces.” One might also call them miniature
tone poems; music as well as words can summon up moods, feelings and even suggest
scenes. Mertz deserves to be ranked with masters such as Schubert, Schumann,
Mendelssohn and Liszt in creating this musical poetry. Like Liszt, Mertz enjoyed borrowing
melodies from others, along with the poetic inspiration that created them. But he had a great
gift for original melody as well. His Fingal’s Cave, for instance, is not a musical borrowing
from Mendelssohn, but his own idea of the North Atlantic scene.

David Leisner has decades of experience performing, composing and teaching. His
technique is comprehensive, and often understated. He obviously cares little for dazzling
display as such. But in subtle – and, when necessary, not so subtle – ways he dazzles
anyway. He can bring two or three distinct voices from his classical guitar simultaneously
and, when necessary, make it sound like an orchestra of guitars. But most of all he finds the
poetic meaning in the melodies, harmonies and rhythms. Mertz’s arrangements of Schubert
make them songs without words. However, Leisner’s comprehensive notes remind us of what
each song is about. With that help, plus Schubert’s music, Mertz’s arrangements, and
Leisner’s playing, one must have a heart of stone to resist becoming, for a half hour at least,
a thorough romantic.

Robert McColley

Il Fronimo magazine review, April/June 2004

We must confess that when we saw Leisner’s CD we immediately thought of yet another
recording of Mertz’s Bardenklänge and the Hungarian Fantasy and of his transcriptions of
Schubert’s Lieder. In reality we could not have been more mistaken, first because Leisner’s
CD is truly very beautiful, and second because it is only through diverse and numerous
readings of a particular repertoire, that you understand musical pieces in their correct
historical perspective. This CD, entirely dedicated to the Czech composer, opens with a
selection from Bardenklänge (literally Songs of the Bard, an ancient Celtic singer) op. 13,
perhaps his most well known composition. Considering the popularity of this opus which has
been well-represented on recordings, we will not go into depth on the pieces themselves. We
will remember only that it is made up of fifteen volumes, the first eleven are definitely by
Mertz, while the last four are arrangements, perhaps not even by Mertz. Leisner has
recorded Fingals Höle from volume 5, Tarantelle from volume 6, and Romanze, Scherzo and
Sensucht from volume 10.

After Bardenklänge, we enter into the heart of the CD with three very well known and
important pieces: the stupendous Elegy, Le Romantique and the Hungarian Fantasy,
probably Mertz’s most famous piece. As before with the Bardenklänge, one need not use too
many words to introduce familiar works. Allow us only to disagree with Leisner’s opinion,
stated in his otherwise precise and well-documented liner notes, when he states: “The Elegy
is one of the best guitar pieces of the 19th century, if not the greatest.” In our opinion, even
though we accept his opinion that this is an enchanting piece, there are others which merit
such praise in the 19th century repertoire.

Completing the CD are six arrangements by Mertz of Schubert’s Lieder issued in 1848 by the
publisher Haslinger. These are the same pieces that Liszt adapted for the piano some years
before and which have become well known to the guitar audience in our own time .

Now we arrive at the interpretation by Leisner who, as we said before, seems to be extremely
convincing: His reading is informed by a profound sensibility that succeeds in rendering the
full ardour and romanticism of Mertz’s music, along with the melancholic vein that often
emerges from his passionate melodies. And a sense of romantic phrasing is absolutely
indispensable in order to effectively play the music of two champions of sehnsucht such as
Schubert and Mertz, without degenerating into being mawkish or mannered (common pitfalls
in this repertoire). Leisner succeeds in maintaining a sober and serene dignity even in the
most sentimental moments. From a technical point of view, the performance is always fluid -
never harsh or forced – even in the most difficult moments, like some passages in the
Hungarian Fantasy, and characterized by a pianistic “liquidity” that is so appropriate for many
works of Schubert and Mertz.

Leisner plays on a modern instrument by John Gilbert, and one does not miss a period
instrument given the strength of Leisner’s performance. And we are stating this even though
we advocate original instruments. We are deeply convinced that, at least in the classical
music world, the most important aspect is the composer, that is the music itself, then the
interpreter and last the instrument, which is only the medium that facilitates the final result.
When this hierarchy of values is changed or even reversed, we are no longer dealing with an
event that is musical, but rather with something that has completely different connotations.
Therefore, we recommend this CD that reinforces Mertz as a leading composer of our
Romantic repertoire.

Marco Riboni

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