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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Années de pèlerinage – Suisse: Première Année – Suisse S160 (1855) [51'45]: Chapelle de Guillaume Tell [6'43]; Au lac de Wallenstadt [3'07]; Pastorale [1'30]; Au bord d’une source [3'56]; Orage [4'50]; Vallée d’Obermann [15'53]; Eglogue [2'50]; Le mal du pays [6'36]; Les cloches de Genève – Nocturne [6'14]
The complete opera paraphrases after Charles Gounod (1818–1893): Les Adieux – Rêverie sur un motif de ‘Roméo et Juliette’ S409 (1867) [8'30]; Valse de l’opéra ‘Faust’ S407 (1861) [10'14]; Les Sabéennes – Berceuse de l’opéra ‘La Reine de Saba’ S408 (1865) [4'40]
Stephen Hough, piano.
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, 18-19 January, 21, 25 September 2003.
HYPERION CDA67424 [75:20]

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I do not know if Hyperion is launching a second complete cycle of Liszt’s piano works. However this present CD is the second offering by Stephen Hough. Already released is ‘Sonatas, Ballades and Polonaises’. Considering the quality of the playing here I find it difficult to imagine that once the disc is heard the customer will not ‘demand’ the other two Années forthwith.

The Années are certainly amongst my Desert Island choices; at least as long as I can have all three, the Venezia and Napoli supplement along with those pieces that were precursors, sketches and alternatives - and not forgetting those numbers that were never issued. For me they epitomise romantic piano music. The excellent sleeve-notes express this better than I can – "[The Années] enshrine many of the central features of Romanticism, capturing the desire to wander, the search for beautiful landscapes and fusion with nature, the fertilization of music with literary and other cultural associations, as well as the journey of discovery, both outward (the physical exploration) and inward (the sense of personal pilgrimage). The models for these pieces are both visual and literary, and Liszt’s music embodies a typically Romantic blend of evocative pictorialism and personalized poetic response."

There are some thirteen versions of the complete Années de Pèlerinage - Suisse to choose from. And some of the contenders are really big names. Currently available versions include Alfred Brendel, Jorge Bolet, Jeno Jandó and Lazar Berman. And Hyperion's own Leslie Howard has covered this work in his fifty-something volume survey of the complete piano works. Just out of curiosity the same database gives fourteen versions of the Deuxième Annèe and ten of the Troisième. This compares to 174 recordings of Liebsträume!

It is quite impossible to highlight everything that is good in this recording; however a few pointers may not go amiss.

The Chapelle de Guillaume Tell gets the recital off to a great start. The work opens quite quietly but soon builds up into a stunning display of octaves and hard-won chords. The magic of the piece, however, is in the transformation back to the opening phrase by way of wonderful arpeggios.

Hough manages to depict the Alpine storm effectively in Orage. This music is truly scary and must be listened to on a windy dark night!

I love Hough’s version of the Au Lac de Wallenstadt. This was derived from an earlier collection by the composer called Album d’un Voyageur. The ‘Au Lac’ work recalled the shared moments between Liszt and his mistress the Countess Marie d’Agoult.

The heart of this Première Année is the Vallée d’Obermann which has a certain ‘Byronic gloom’ but never fails to express wonder at the ‘impenetrable grandeur of nature’.

My own particular favourite is the gorgeous Au bord d’une source. This is one of the finest pieces of water music ever composed. Just listening to it on a hot summer’s day makes one feel deliciously cool. And Hough did not disappoint me.

For me the great discovery on this CD is the wonderful Opera Paraphrases 'after' Charles Gounod. If anyone were to ask me my opinion about Gounod it would be that I did not really enjoy his music. I accept that there are some gorgeous moments in his operas and a few minor piano and organ pieces have appeared on my music-stand over the years. But by and large I would avoid him wherever possible. Call it prejudice if you like, but then again opera is not my cup of tea. However, in my opinion, these three paraphrases provide the listener with 'all the Gounod you will ever need!'

The three transcriptions can only be described as heart-achingly beautiful. The Les Adieux - is based on motifs from the balcony scene of the largely forgotten opera Roméo et Juliette. This should be in everyone’s top twenty of all-time romantic piano pieces.

The Valse de l'opéra - Faust is a masterpiece. From start to finish this embodies the extrovert and flamboyant Liszt. Here the pianist uses every trick in the book to fill out and decorate the relatively trite original tune. Surely if ever there was a concert crowd-puller it is this. It builds from a subdued start to a pyrotechnical ‘big finish’, with lots of reflective passages in between.

The short but very beautiful Les Sabéennes - Berceuse from the also forgotten opera The Queen of Sheba brings this fantastic CD to a meditative close.

It is difficult to recommend any single version of a work as great as the Première Année – Suisse. I like Brendel and Howard on this. A friend swears by Bolet. However it is not the sort of music that completely and definitively reveals itself with just one interpreter. I have about six versions of the Première Année in my collection. Every one of them discloses something new and exiting about this work. However I would heartily recommend this present version for anyone who has not got this work in their collection and would certainly recommend that it be added to the libraries of those for whom these pieces are old favourites. Hough seems to capture the romantic spirit of this cycle so effectively. He masterfully achieves that just balance of lyricism and pyrotechnics so necessary to the successful playing of Liszt’s music.

John France

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