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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Années de pèlerinage – Deuxième année: Italie S.161 [55:30], Supplement: Venezia e Napoli S.162 [17:33]
Joyce Hatto (piano)
Recorded 11th-12th March 1996, 1st October 1999, The Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge

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With a warm, slightly distant recording in the Concert Artist manner, the first part of this disc magically evokes sun-drenched Italy as the romantics knew and loved it. This is the Italy of Corot, Turner and the Grand Tour, with Liszt the Byronic traveller finding history at every turn – Raphael ("Sposalizio"), Michelangelo ("Il Penseroso", a doom-laden piece if ever there was one), Salvator Rosa (a more jaunty episode) and Petrarch (the three sonnets). These famous pieces are unfolded by Joyce Hatto with great musicality and with a humble awareness of their beauty.

A word of explanation is required over the word "musicality", for to describe a performance as "musical" is often tantamount to damning it with faint praise, suggestive of wholesome qualities that fall short of "charisma", "personality", "interpretation" and the various other accoutrements with which it is sometimes considered necessary to smother Liszt’s music. I do not intend the word in that sense. When the matter to be played is music (a fact which it was still fashionable to deny back in the days when Joyce Hatto first studied all these works), it should be the highest praise to describe the performance of it as "musical". I feel that Hatto would agree, so beautifully does she realise every detail of the score, yet with an awareness of the meaning behind it.

I could stop here, but I have actually dealt with only the first six tracks; the Second of Liszt’s "Années de Pèlerinage" concludes with the massive "Dante Sonata". Here a number of things change. Liszt himself changes, of course, bringing out, alongside many passages of wonderful poetry, the darker, more demonic side of his personality. But also the recording perspectives change; instead of the usual rather distanced microphone placing we are used to from this source, the recording is close up and brilliant. We are not told which pieces were recorded on what occasion, but this one was clearly made separately. It is certainly startling, coming after the mellow sound of the Petrarch Sonnets and some might find it too much so, rather like some of RCA’s recordings of Rubinstein. I must say I do not find it excessive (I would at all events liken it to the best of RCA’s recordings of Rubinstein); rather, I find it extremely exciting.

As a result of homing in so closely on Hatto’s playing we get a new perspective of her pianism, but I think there is more to it than that, for she is in truly awesome form. While the expected poetry is not lacking in the gentler moments, she throws all caution to the winds in the demonic passages, producing torrents of thrilling sound (though without a trace of hardening in the tone). This is a Liszt performance to set alongside the greatest I know.

Back to more distant sound for the "Venezia e Napoli" supplement, yet here, too, something is different. It stems, I think, from Hatto’s realisation that, while the "Années de pèlerinage" volume shows Liszt at his most deeply musical, this supplement – based on popular Italian themes of the day – is more sheerly music for entertainment. Whereas in the greater pieces, the less we are made aware of the pianism at stake the better, here we should be made to gasp with astonishment at the pianistic feats. So Hatto slightly adjusts her aim, and here too, she does not disappoint. There is a certain sense of irony here which would have been out of place in the preceding pieces.

My one slight reservation concerns the opening pages of the "Tarantella". Brilliant and vivid though they are, is it not all a shade too hectic actually to sound like a Tarantella? At this point I took out a couple of comparisons. Edith Farnadi (Westminster, long unavailable) disappointed me in a similar way (and is cautious in the closing pages, which Hatto certainly is not) but Jorge Bolet (Decca) at a fractionally slower tempo seems closer to the spirit of the dance.

Having begun making comparisons I noted that Hatto is the most magical of all in the "Gondoliera" – Farnadi is a little dry, though the close recording does not help, while Bolet is pleasant but seemingly uninvolved. In the cadenza passages Farnadi and Bolet make us hear notes while Hatto, playing them faster, makes us hear magic. Bolet, on the other hand, finds a tragic note (at a slower tempo) in the "Canzone" which I found very impressive; Farnadi and and Hatto are more overtly passionate. While I have noted my preference for Bolet at the start of the "Tarantella", Hatto yields nothing to him in the "Canzona Napolitana" and the closing pages.

A textual query. Bolet alone observes, very effectively, the "Un poco meno Presto ma sempre con molto brio" (a little less fast but still with much brio) marking that appears at two points in the "Tarantella" – or at least, it is printed in the Peters Edition edited by Emile von Sauer that I have in front of me. Farnadi and Hatto so deliberately don’t slow down that I wonder if that marking is inauthentic and they are aware of the fact? But, even if this were so, since the momentary slowing down is so obviously effective, might not Sauer, a pupil of Liszt, have added it on the strength of something he had heard Liszt do, or which Liszt had told him to do?

I suppose that I must by now have reviewed more records by Joyce Hatto than by any other single pianist. Though in a general sort of way I suppose I have a picture of her by now as a musicianly, scrupulous, technically prepared and above all trustworthy guide to a wide range of repertoire, and a fair percentage of new issues go towards reinforcing this image, I must say there have also been occasions when she has quite taken my breath away, entirely confounding my expectations; this "Dante Sonata" was one of them.

The anonymous notes accompanying this issue are extremely well-written and helpful so here is obviously a major addition to the Liszt discography.

Christopher Howell

see also review by Johnathan Woolf

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