Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Album d’un voyageur: Impressions et Poésies, S156/R8 [55:36]:
I. Lyon [7:25]
IIa. Le Lac de Wallenstadt [3:59]
IIb. Au bord d’une source [4:24]
III. Les Cloches de G [12:29]
IV. Vallée d’Obermann [14:57]
V. La Chapelle de Guillaume Tell [7:10]
VI. Psaume (de l’église à Genève) [4:54]
Apparitions, S155/R11 [23:03]
Ashley Wass (piano)
rec. 5-7 March 2009, Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK
NAXOS 8.570768 [78:39]

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 close.

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 series.

Brian Reinhart

A fascinating Liszt recital, not just for curiosity-seekers.