Liszt’s Album d’un Voyageur, the product of a man who
had just left behind his teenage years, is a sort of first draft
of the Swiss Année d’Pelerinage. Many sections of the
later work are here, in a different order: “La Chapelle de Guillaume
Tell” is nearly last rather than first, and “Les Cloches de
G” is right in the middle rather than at the end (and is twice
as long). “La Vallée d’Obermann” begins with a very different,
fragmented version of what would later be its more easily flowing
main theme; the rough draft sounds a bit like a sketch for “Vesti
la giubba.” “Au bord d’une source” is not quite as sweetly appealing
in its harmonies here, not quite as “catchy” as the final draft.
And there are two movements, the first and last, which did not
make the cut for inclusion in the Années.
One might be tempted, then, to treat this music as a historical
novelty, a mere curiosity. But Ashley Wass plays this music
with authoritative power; his combination of effortless virtuoso
technique and “big,” spacious interpretation is well-suited
to the spiritual Liszt we encounter in the Chapelle and on the
shores of the lake of Wallenstadt. He knows “Au bord d’une source”
isn’t a glittering encore piece in this draft and doesn’t try
to play it that way. Wass is simply an all-around excellent
Lisztian, as evidenced especially by his towering “Obermann”,
in which he clarifies the disjointed initial material and joins
it together with the familiar final minutes in a powerful dramatic
arc. Indeed, his playing at the end of the movement is unmissable.
Fascinating, too, is the transformation in “Cloches”, which
ultimately became a nocturne but here has a narrative of sorts:
clock-bells which both chime in the distance and resound up
The Apparitions are delicate little creations well worth
knowing. They are all, as the title suggests, prone to dreamy
harmonies and soft moods, but what’s really interesting is the
variety of other composers the three short works evoke. A central
episode in the first sounds rather like Chopin, a ballade or
polonaise, and the last has traces of Schumann. Wass also adds
a quiet lyricism which stretches out the occasional dissonance
— an effect worthy of Scriabin.
So this is a fascinating Liszt recital, off the beaten track.
Collectors will be interested, and they will be satisfied. For
most listeners, the final draft of Années will be preferable,
and performances of it by the likes of Lazar Berman will be
more frequently in the CD player. But Ashley Wass’s playing
is good enough to sustain listening on its own, and the pianophile
at large will want to hear this if only for Wass’s brilliance.
I hope he returns for more volumes in the Naxos complete Liszt