Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Années de Pèlerinage II
Deuxième Année - Italie (pub. 1855) [50:06]
Wiegenlied (1881) [3:43]
Mosonyis Grabgeleit (1870) [6:53]
Am Grabe Richard Wagners (1883) [3:11]
La Lugubre Gondola No.2 (1885) [8:49]
Trauervorspiel und Trauermarsch (1885) [6:24]
Michael Korstick (piano)
rec. Congress Centrum Pforzheim, August 2009
CPO 777 585-2 [79:54]

I have to admit to being somewhat resistant to the heavy romanticism of Franz Liszt’s music, but having come under the spell of some of the enigmatic late works such as La Lugubre Gondola, and hearing plenty of the more spectacular pieces played live, there are qualities which have taken a grip on my soul and refuse to leave.

The Années de Pèlerinage is a huge collection of pieces which occupied Liszt for more than half his lifetime. The nature of the piece as an entire cycle began with the conception of a second volume, following successful performances of the first in the late 1830s and early 1840s. This second volume has close connections with the art and literature he encountered in Italy, and these often profoundest of musical expressions range from the contemplative ecstasy of the opening Sposalizio, influenced by a painting by Raphael, to the sometimes stormy passions of the Sonetto movements, the texts by Petrarch being given in Italian in the booklet but not translated. One of the most breathtakingly influential pieces for other composers such as Wagner and, if I trust my ears, Shostakovich is Il Penseroso. This takes its title from a part of Michelangelo’s tomb for Lorenzo di Medici in Florence, and contains some extraordinary harmonic progressions and an atmosphere of remarkable funerary intensity. The seventh and final piece is the monumental Après une Lecture de Dante – Fantasia quasi Sonata, which as Charles K. Tomicik points out in the booklet notes, is “an idea transcending all conventional aesthetic limits.” The technical demands of this piece are huge in every regard, and Michael Korstick is equal to and master of all of them.

Michael Korstick’s recording on CPO 777478 of Années de Pèlerinage I and the Piano Sonata in B minor has been well received, and I can well believe it from the playing on this release. Korstick has a truly powerful forte which allows him to treat the softer moods without pussyfooting around the keyboard. While resisting the potential for pianistic opacity through the rich nature of some of Liszt’s piano writing, Korstick also manages to sing with the instrument, drawing out lyrical lines and inner voices, as well as balancing the harmonic content with superb sensitivity and evenness of touch. There is some heavy breathing going on which comes through in the gentler but still hugely intense passages of pieces like the Sonetto 104, but I think we can easily take this against the exquisite authenticity of Korstick’s craft, through which no note escapes as being unimportant.

The remaining works are a selection of those often sparing and melancholy late works which together form one of the “great enigmas of music history.” Even the title Wiegenlied or ‘Cradle Song’ stands over a score of gentle mood but remarkable tonal ambiguity. Mosonyis Grabeleit or ‘Mosonyi’s Funeral Procession’ is both dramatic and elegiac: less a slow march and more an emanation from within the grave itself. Am Grabe Richard Wagners refers to Liszt’s ‘Excelsior’ theme from an earlier work, to which Wagner had pointed out a similarity to his ‘Parsifal’ motif. This is another piece which is almost post-modern in its single-minded brevity and uniform reluctance to communicate any sentiment beyond unbreachable introspection. La lugubre gondola – a superlative expression of terminal gloom in music, was inspired by a Venetian funeral procession through the Grand Canal, and the piece took numerous forms and arrangements. The final, mighty descending lines and ultimate piano-busting conclusion of the Trauervorspiel und Trauermarsch place the definitive headstone at the end of a superb and substantial Liszt recital.

This CPO recording is very good indeed, though the very lowest notes, often requiring and receiving considerable impact from the pianist, seem somehow more distant than the rest in terms of resonance. This is a small point and not really a complaint; there always being a trade-off between bass oomph and overall transparency. Competitors and great names in this field are of course numerous, and I’ve always had a good deal of time for Stephen Hough’s wide reaching double-disc survey on the Virgin label , as well as Alfred Brendel’s fine interpretations on Philips. I would also include those little morsels granted by Horowitz’s late recordings. I’m less keen on Jenö Jandó’s rather uninvolving sounding if technically impressive Naxos recording if you’re tempted by that particular bargain route. There are many ways to take Liszt’s Italian tour, and I’m not about to start making claims about this release being the ultimate first choice. I think the difference with Michael Korstick for me is that I’ve become more of a fan of the music rather than the phenomenal technique of this or any pianist, and this CPO recording has very much left me wanting more.

Dominy Clements

Leaves you wanting more.