April 14, 2011


Liszt: Années de Pèlerinage (complete). Louis Lortie, piano. Chandos. $18.99 (2 CDs).

Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 1-6; Dante Symphonie; A la Chapelle Sixtine; Symphonic Poems—Les Préludes, Orpheus, Mazeppa, Hungaria; Rákoczy-Marsch for Orchestra; Rákoczy-Marsch (Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15) for Piano; Festmarsch zur Goethe-Jubiläumsfeier; Tasso: Lamento e Trionfo. Budapest Symphony Orchestra conducted by András Kórodi (Rhapsodies); Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Hartmut Haenchen (Dante, Chapelle); Vienna Symphony conducted by Yuri Ahronovitch (Les Préludes); Ungarische Nationalphilharmonie conducted by János Ferencsik (Orpheus, Mazeppa, Hungaria, Tasso); Ungarische Nationalphilharmonie conducted by Gyula Németh (Rákoczy, Festmarsch); Jenö Jando, piano (Rákoczy/Rhapsody). Capriccio. $19.99 (4 CDs).

     It is a mistake to think of Franz Liszt as the greatest virtuoso pianist of the 19th century – not because the characterization is wrong but because it is incomplete. To most listeners, and even to most of the public during his lifetime, Liszt was indeed the consummate virtuoso and consummate Romantic, dressing and looking the part of the intensely driven “poetic soul” and living a highly unconventional life in which he created and performed astonishingly virtuosic music – until, as he aged, he became more involved in religious matters and his compositional style became more transparent, significantly bleaker and so forward-looking that even today, many of his late works have a peculiar and very modern sound.

     It is in some of his less spectacular (although still spectacularly difficult) works that the true soul of Liszt the artist emerges – for example, in Années de Pèlerinage, a nearly three-hour pianistic odyssey with its origin in Album d’un Voyageur, written when the composer was in his mid-20s. Revisions over the next two decades led to the final version of the first two parts of Années de Pèlerinage, a cycle that Liszt himself said (in words referring to Album d’un Voyageur but even truer of the final work) was “written for the few rather than for the many.” So personal, so inward-looking are these works, yet so technically demanding, that it is easy to see why Liszt did not think of them as designed for a wide audience. Yet French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie clearly sees them as capable of reaching out: his remarkably well-knit performance of the complete cycle is filled with elegance, eloquence and nuance. The music soars and descends, speeds and slows, entrances and withdraws fluently under Lortie’s fingers, whether in the wistful homesickness of “Le mals du pays” or the highly dramatic tone poem of “Vallée d’Obermann,” both from the first year of the cycle. The emotional content of the three Petrarch Sonata movements of the second year is fully explored here, and the huge “Après une lecture du Dante” (“Dante Sonata”) that caps the year is fully explored both as sonata and as broad-ranging fantasy – its effect is dramatically overwhelming. The third year of pieces, written much later, when the composer was in his 60s, and in his very austere and difficult-to-hear late style, also comes across effectively in Lortie’s recording: this is neither easy nor lovable music, and it is deeply felt in a very different way from that of the earlier pieces in this sequence, but Lortie is as comfortable communicating the religious sentiments of several pieces as he is with the funeral march for Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico. Chandos has accorded Lortie’s Années de Pèlerinage several distinctions, including pricing the two-CD set at the usual cost of a single CD and managing to get more than 80 minutes of music on each disc, even though 80 minutes is generally considered the outer limit of what a CD can accommodate. And the sound is bright, transparent and clear.

     Sonic quality is scarcely the main selling point for a new four-CD set of Liszt’s music: the value here is not only in the set’s very reasonable price but also in its revelation of yet other sides of Liszt beyond that of virtuoso pianist. Liszt was, after all, a considerable composer of orchestral works, including 13 symphonic poems. The Capriccio set re-releases recordings of many vintages – recording dates are not given, but the performances’ age may be judged by the fact that, for example, conductor János Ferencsik died in 1984. Everything here is workmanlike or better; Ferencsik and Hartmut Haenchen have a particularly strong grasp of the pieces they conduct. The set includes five of the symphonic poems as well as all six orchestral Hungarian Rhapsodies – which Liszt himself did not orchestrate, although he worked with Franz Doppler on five of them. The second CD, including the Dante Symphonie and A la Chapelle Sixtine, is musically the meatiest, although the Hungarian Rhapsodies have always been the biggest crowd pleasers for most audiences. The fourth CD includes the little-known Festmarsch zur Goethe-Jubiläumsfeier and an interesting contrast between the orchestral and piano works that are both known as Rákoczy-Marsch – the keyboard one fully justifying the usual vision of Liszt as pianist extraordinaire. Neither this set nor Lortie’s Années de Pèlerinage provides a full picture of Liszt the man and Liszt the composer, but taken together, the two go a long way toward showing why Liszt was such an extraordinarily important force in 19th-century musical life – and, through the sheer weight of his personality and strength of his beliefs, in 19th-century political life as well.

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