Liszt Années de Pèlerinage - Complete Recording cpo

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Années de Pèlerinage – complete (1835-1877)
Sonata in B minor (1852)
Mosonyis Grabgeleit
Am Grabe Richard Wagners
La Lugubre Gondola
Trauervorspiel und Trauermarsch
Michael Korstick (piano)
rec. 1997-2010, Congress Centrum, Pforzheim, Germany
cpo 555635-2 [3 CDs: 232]

The eminent German pianist Michael Korstick made this fine Liszt compilation over thirteen years. The attractive box cover shot of a Venetian dusk (or dawn) only says ‘Années de Pèlerinage – Complete Recording’ but there also are five of the late pieces and even the mighty Sonata in B minor. No Mephisto Waltzes or Hungarian Rhapsodies, so not quite all Liszt’s greatest solo piano hits, but still many of his best works for his instrument.

The ‘Years of Pilgimage’ are indeed complete, all three volumes plus Venezia e Napoli, the three pieces in the supplement to the second volume. The first volume, derived from Lizt’s Swiss travels, begins with an imposing Chapelle de Guillaume Tell. Its opening is highly rhetorical in Korsticks’ hands, and the expressive hesitations announce that this will be the sort of playing that evokes Liszt himself, head thrown back, aiming at the sublime. Liszt playing has got more respectful, chaste, even polite, in some quarters. I prefer it this way. The occasional thrilling feats of virtuosity remind us that Liszt once chastised a brilliant pupil for overdoing the pyrotechnics: “Do you think I care how fast you can play double octaves?” But most of the works in the first volume are simpler nature pieces, and poetry matters more than keyboard fireworks. And those pieces, such as the gentle Pastorale, are delightfully ingratiating. The storm-tossed Orage lacks nothing in tempestuous power, and the big tone poem in the volume, the Vallée d’Obermann, gets a magnificent account, passionate and noble. (“It is always a mistake to play Liszt without nobility”, observed Alfred Brendel.)

The second volume fares equally well. The three Petrarch Sonnets are soulful and songful, as these transcriptions of Liszt’s own song settings ought to be. Sposalizio draws its inspiration from Raphael’s painting  Marriage of the Virgin. After Korstick’s initially slowish tempo begins to flow more, he finds a quasi-religious feeling within its seeming straightforwardness. In Il Penseroso (The Thinker), based on Michelangelo’s sculpture in the Medici Chapel in Florence, Korstick also brings out the rapt inwardness behind the sombre mood of the work. A terrific account of the Dante Sonata closes this volume. The pianist deploys all his technical gifts, as the score requires, but always in the service of Liszt’s Dantesque vision. It is compelling playing, as much for the concentration brought to the quieter moments as for the dazzling delivery of the thunderous elements.

But if you want something of Liszt’s music aimed purely and simply at dazzling the audience, there is the third piece of the supplement to the second volume, the Tarantella. This Presto’s  pyrotechnics are terrific fun, and Korstick is sufficiently coruscating to make you cheer at the end. One needs to accept that sometimes Liszt’s piano compositions will legitimately be about piano-playing, and why not in the century of the piano virtuoso and evolution in the power of the instrument? Phrases such as “empty virtuosity”, once common in discussions of Liszt, quite miss this point.

The third volume of the Années de pèlerinage reminds us of Liszt’s compositional aim once stated as “hurling a lance into the future”. Several numbers have adventurous harmonies and other anticipations of the music of the next century. But the most familiar piece in the volume is Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este (Fountains at the Villa d’Este), which is less experimental. Whether in the forward-looking works often sombre works like the pair entitled Aux cyprès de la Villa d’Este, or in the watery cascades of Les jeux d’eau, Korstick always foregrounds the expressiveness in the music. Even in the often lugubrious late pieces on this set, such as the La lugubre gondola No.2 or Am Grabe Richard Wagners, Korstick’s concentration and insight hold the attention.

As fine as any performance in this collection, though, is the 1997 recording of the Sonata in B minor. It has all the rhetorical flair the work needs, but also an iron grip on proceedings, each tempo right in itself and in relation to other sections. It also observes an unwritten rule, followed by several pianists from Horowitz to Hough, that the most satisfying accounts of this piece last no more than thirty minutes. Adding minutes by indulging in broader tempi takes away impetus and impairs our sense of the integrity of this highly organic composition. Korstick does justice to the all work’s passing beauties but never lingers to smell the flowers; he sees the end in the beginning. It is as good an account of the piece, one of the supreme piano works in the instrument’s repertoire, as I know.

The piano sound is good enough, even if the tone is a bit tinny in the treble at moments. and thus some fast passages high in the keyboard can ‘clatter’ somewhat. But this is easily tamed with the tone controls of most systems, and never impaired my pleasure in the performances.

There is a good and very full booklet note, with 22 double-column pages (in English and German). The note mentions every piece on the three well-filled discs, 79, 79 and 72 minutes. This cpo reissue would be a valuable starting point for a Liszt piano collection, and an addition for most Lisztians to consider if the programme appeals. If you harbour doubts about Liszt (though in that case I doubt you would have read this), Korstick might persuade you, with the help of the very insightful booklet, of his tremendous compositional gifts.

Roy Westbrook

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Sonata in B minor
Années de pèlerinage, 1ère année, Suisse (9 pieces), S. 160:
Chapelle de Guillaume Tell (S. 160 No. 1)
Au lac de Wallenstadt (S. 160 No. 2)
Pastorale (S. 160 No. 3)
Au bord d’une source (S. 160 No. 4)
Orage (S. 160 No. 5)
Vallée d’Obermann (S. 160 No. 6)
Eglogue (S. 160 No. 7)
Le mal du pays (S. 160 No. 8)
Les cloches de Genève (S. 160 No. 9)
Années de pèlerinage, 2ème année, Italie (7 pieces), S. 161:
Sposalizio (S. 161 No. 1)
Il penseroso (S. 161 No. 2)
Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa (S. 161 No. 3)
Sonetto 47 del Petrarca (S. 161 No. 4)
Sonetto 104 del Petrarca (S. 161 No. 5)
Sonetto 123 del Petrarca (S. 161 No. 6)
Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi sonata (S. 161 No.7)
Venezia e Napoli, Supplément aux Années de pèlerinage, 2ème année, (3 pieces).
Années de pèlerinage, 3ème année (7 pieces), S. 163.