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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Complete Piano Music: Vol. 26: Music for Two
Années de Pèlerinage, 2nd year, Italy, S.161, No.
7 (1839-49); Après une lecture de Dante: Fantasia
quasi Sonata, ‘Dante Sonata’ (arr. Vittorio Bresciani for
2 pianos) [16:54]
The Dante Symphony, after the Divine Comedy, ‘Dante Symphony’; S.648 (c.1856-57)
(transc. composer for two pianos and chorus, 1859) [43:18]
Franz Liszt Piano Duo: (Vittorio
Bresciani; Francesco Nicolosi)
rec. 5-7 March 2007, Italian Cultural Institute, Budapest,
NAXOS 8.570516 [60:12]
Pianists Bresciani and Nicolosi formed the Franz Liszt
Piano Duo in 1998 to advance the cause of Liszt’s two piano transcriptions
of his symphonic output. Their collaboration began with arrangements
of the Goethe-inspired Faust Symphony, S.108 (1854;
rev. 1857) and continued with the Dante. The duo’s repertoire
includes Liszt’s transcription for two pianos of his symphonic
poems and the two piano arrangements of Wagner’s operas made
by Liszt and his pupils.
Liszt together with his mistress Marie d’Agoult read widely. They,
like many others, became inspired by the epic poem Commedia (c.1310-14)
later known as The Divine Comedy written by Dante Alighieri
(1265-1321) the famous Italian poet and writer. Liszt in 1839
started work on the piano piece fragment dantesque in
an attempt to portray Dante’s world in music. D’Agoult wrote
to Henri Lehmann in 1839 from the fishing village of San Rossore
stating that Liszt had begun work on the fragment dantesque, “which
is sending him to the very devil.”1 Several
weeks later Liszt gave the première of the fragment in
Vienna. It seems that its manuscript went missing and it was
only after 1849 when living in Weimar that Liszt reworked the
music as the seventh piece of his Années de Pèlerinage (Years
of Pilgrimage, 2nd year, Italian volume) with the title of Après
une Lecture de Dante: Fantasia Quasi Sonata (After
a Reading of Dante: Fantasia Quasi Sonata).
Widely known today as the Dante Sonata the substantial single
movement work is considered one of Liszt’s most daunting piano
scores. In this case we have an arrangement for two pianos
by Vittorio Bresciani; without a composition date given. Liszt
approved no programme for the Dante Sonata apart from
the brief title of Après une Lecture de Dante (After
a Reading of Dante). According to biographer Alan Walker, “The
Dante Sonata remains one of Liszt’s unique creations, little
played and little understood for a half a century after its
initial publication in 1858.”2 Neglected for many years a quick google has shown that
there are now several versions of the Dante Sonata available
although, it is programmed a lot more sparingly by performers
From the outset Bresciani and Nicolosi establish an atmosphere of
dark foreboding which develops in intensity and suggests the
entrance to hell. At 5:19 a calmer mood prevails - evocative
of a love scene between Paolo and Francesca. From 8:24 the
weight and tempo increases as the Devil’s influence is observed.
Unsettling, stormy music takes centre-stage between 9:38 and
12:09 before running a calmer course from 12:10. From 13:25
the duo convey an innate feeling of hope that then builds to
a spirited conclusion.
After meeting Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein in 1847, Liszt’s
interest in Dante’s Divine Comedy was once again ignited.
It was during his Weimar years (1848-61) that he composed many
of his finest works: the Sonata for Piano in B minor,
S.178 (1852-53); A Faust Symphony, S.108 (1854, rev.
1857) and the Dante Symphony, S.109 (1855-57). Although
Liszt had had sketches of the Dante Symphony in his
folder as far back as the 1840s he only resumed work on it
in 1855 completing the score in 1857. In 1859 he prepared this
arrangement for two pianos.
It seems that the orchestra was seriously under-rehearsed when Liszt
conducted the première of this difficult score. Reports indicate
an embarrassingly inadequate performance at Dresden in 1857.
Dedicated to Richard Wagner, the Dante Symphony depicts
the romantic tale of struggle and redemption that traces Dante’s
journey from Hell through Purgatorio. Wagner suggested to Liszt
that it was impossible for a mere mortal to convey the heavenly
wonders of Paradise. It consists of two sections/movements:
the Inferno and the Purgatorio. At Wagner’s behest, Liszt avoids
a Paradise movement and instead offers a substantial finale entitled
Magnificat. This entails a chorus of angels set for female
or children’s voices. Liszt gave a performance of his two piano
version of the Dante Symphony in 1866 at the Paris home
of artist and illustrator Gustave Doré with Camille Saint-Saëns
as his partner.3
In the opening Inferno Bresciani and Nicolosi open proceedings with
chilling music in which they bring out a real sense of menace.
A change of mood at 6:40 comes as welcome respite. Tranquil,
light and amorous, this feels like music for the lovers Paolo
and Francesca. The romantic mood gradually lessens and for
a section between 9:37-10:48 one senses an underlying tension.
Between 12:04 and 14:19 there is an especially lovely passage,
full of passion and affection. From 14:20 a change of mood
is discernable, gradually developing in weight and drama into
a terrifying evocation of the fires of Hell.
Containing several rising figures the Purgatorio movement begins in
relative tranquillity, representing the promise of hope and
redemption. From 6:59 one feels a darker hue to the music.
At 10:47 the music becomes more optimistic and at 11:52 the
writing has a hymn-like character. From 13:00 a deep ecclesiastical
quality prevails. The Magnificat links directly from the Purgatorio
without a pause. The penitential-sounding children’s choir
from Hungarian Radio under their conductor Gabriella Thész
convey an ethereal quality. At 3:12 the treble Barbara Szmodics
offers a short but radiant solo bringing out its feeling of
youthful vulnerability - a convincing supplication for redemption.
The Naxos recording made at the Italian Cultural Institute in Budapest
has an exceptional combination of clarity and balance. The
booklet notes from Keith Anderson provide most of the essential
information. The duo demonstrate that they can handle the severe
technical demands with aplomb and at the same time create a
convincing sense of drama. They clearly have the music of Liszt
in the blood.
Liszt (Volume 1), ‘The Virtuoso Years 1811-1847’ by
Alan Walker. Publisher: Cornell University Press (1983, revised
edition 1987) ISBN 0-8014-9421-4. pp. 275, 279.
Liszt (Volume 2), ‘The Weimar Years 1848-1861’ by Alan
Walker. Publisher: Cornell University Press (1989) ISBN 0-8014-9721-3.
pp. 26, 50, 260, 296, 409, 486.
Liszt (Volume 3), ‘The Final Years 1861-1886’ by Alan
Walker. Publisher: Cornell University Press (1997) ISBN 0-8014-8453-7.
pp. 38, 104.
part of the International Music Score Library Project, Wikipedia
(the free on-line encyclopedia) hold a detailed and helpful ‘List
of Compositions by Franz Liszt’ that evidently contains
additions to Humphrey Searle’s 1966 list. The online list was
made by Sharon Winklhofer and Leslie Howard. In two sections
the Searle numbers (S) run from S.1-S.350 and S.351-S.999.
This proves to be valuable tool for Lisztians
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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