Liszt: The Pilgrimage Years
Commentary: Evgeny Kissin, Charles Rosen, Leslie Howard, and Antonio Pappano
Alex Mariotti, narrator; David Haughton (actor) as Liszt; Bridget Borgobello (actor) as Marie D’Agoult
Directed by Angelo Bozzolini
Produced by Angelo Bozzolini, Luigi Melecchi and Roberto Prosseda.
Filmed on location in Italy, 2011
NTSC-16:9 anamorphic, PCM Stereo, Region 0; in English, German, French; much of the commentary is in Italian with subtitles.
EUROARTS 2058868 [62:00]

The arrival of this DVD was propitious indeed, because only a day earlier, I had heard a pulse-pounding recital by the Seattle-based pianist Craig Sheppard of Books One (Suisse) and Two (Italie) of Liszt’s Les Années de Pčlerinage (The Years of Pilgrimage). Here was a film whose raison d’ętre was these very works.

Directed and co-produced by Angelo Bozzolini, Liszt: The Pilgrimage Years is a sort of hybrid. It is partly a film about Liszt’s life, with actors silently strolling locations where the composer and his inamorata Marie d’Agoult visited. Narrator Alex Mariotti reads from Liszt’s and Marie’s writings and also from a rather highly perfumed script.

The film also is partly a documentary featuring eminent musicians talking about Liszt’s works – not only the Années de Pčlerinage but also other piano and symphonic works - with particular emphasis on the big B Minor Sonata. Here is the most interesting material in the film: watching Charles Rosen, who talks about music as compellingly as he plays it, discuss fine points of Liszt’s Années as he illustrates from the keyboard. Evgeny Kissin and Leslie Howard also offer intriguing pianist-eye’s views of the particular challenges of the piano works. Howard is particularly interesting on the subject of Liszt’s successive revisions of what became the Transcendental Études. This reviewer kept wishing for more of the brilliant pianists playing and talking, and less voice-over narration.

The “years of pilgrimage” were launched by the scandal of Liszt’s elopement with Marie, Comtesse d’Agoult, with whom he went on to have three illegitimate children. One of these children, Cosima, was to follow in her mother’s scandalous footsteps in dalliance and motherhood with Richard Wagner, whom she later married. The film presents us with dreamy, evocative scenes of Liszt and Marie riding in a carriage pulled by two white horses, strolling down the vast lawns of a villa toward Lago di Como, and wafting romantically across the lake in a graceful boat. Somehow we don’t see any scenes with those three little children born within a four-year span; there’s no wailing or nappies or grubby fingers, which may have been just the sort of thing that caused the disintegration of the couple’s romance after the birth of their third child.

The beautiful locations, however - they also include sites in Milan, Pisa, San Rossore, and Rome, though unfortunately the Swiss locations are neglected - are not merely window dressing. They do shed light on the visual effects Liszt was recreating in his music, with Les Années de Pčlerinage providing an aural travelogue of the composer’s journeys.

The narration gives a good overview of Liszt’s highly eventful life, from his piano debut in Paris at the tender age of 12 through the public wave of adulation that Heine dubbed “Lisztomania”, past a succession of passionate love affairs, and on to the final rise of his Catholicism in the taking of minor clerical orders late in life. Kissin has some priceless observations on this late triumph of faith, after Liszt’s succession of flagrant love affairs.

In sum: Enjoyable fare, especially for Liszt fans, and an entertaining commemoration of the bicentennial of Liszt’s birth.

Melinda Bargreen

Enjoyable fare, especially for Liszt fans, and an entertaining commemoration of the bicentennial of Liszt’s birth.