Having said that Michael Korstick’s recording of the ‘Italian’
Années de Pèlerinage II left me wanting more (see review),
here is more, and very good it is too. Jumping straight into
the Années de Pèlerinage III which is the main meat of
the programme, Korstick expands nicely into the Angelus!
opening, giving the music its sense of pious introversion,
but also powering the notes with a feeling of passionate faith.
Aux Cyprès de la Villa d’Este and its third movement
partner have an enigmatic tonality but a great deal of potent
atmosphere, which Korstick delivers with a good deal of depth.
The expression of the trees as timeless but not immobile sentinels
is strong, and Korstick’s technique and remarkable clarity in
the humungous climax is breathtaking.
The rippling and virtuoso jeux d’eaux of the central
movement portrays the fountains at the Villa d’Este, and Korstick
creates his impressionistic imagery through a superb evenness
of touch, not pulling the music around to impose extra layers
of expression which almost invariably end up sounding artificial.
This sparkling movement is immediately undercut by Sunt lacrymae
rerum, a funeral ode which connects this third volume to
the other two. This is another powerful piece which goes further
than expressing the meaning behind Virgil’s quote, “There are
tears in all things, and mortal things touch the heart.” The
anger and anguish in the work also relates to the tragic consequences
of the Hungarian uprising of 1849, and Michael Korstick lives
each note of Liszt’s fury and pain. The texture of sound in
the bass notes is something quite incredible, and this continues
into the equally grim Marche funèbre. This dark work
was written in response to the killing of Maximilian I by insurgents
in 1867. As Charles K. Tomicik points out in the booklet, it
seems remarkable to think that Liszt had already “bid farewell
to tonality and classical form” at the same time when Brahms’s
struggles with his first symphony still had another nine years
to go. The cycle ends with Sursum corda or “Lift up your
hearts”, a return to the E major which opens the entire Années
de Pèlerinage, and a reinforcement and extension of the
ecstasy which concludes the previous Marche funèbre,
which expresses “In magnis et voluisse sat est” (In great things
it is enough to have shown one’s will).
We’re forgetting the ‘filler’, which is the not insubstantial
Venezia e Napoli supplement to volume 2 of the Années
de Pèlerinage. The lyrical Gondolier charms us with
his song on the sparkling and gently rocking waters in the first
of the three movements. The dramatic central Canzone is
an operatic transcription of “Nessun maggior dolore, Canzone
del gondolier net Otello di Rossini. This movement has a direct
transition to the final virtuoso Tarantella, based on
a theme by Guillaume Louis Cottrau. The word ‘transformation’
is more appropriate for these transcriptions and adaptations
of themes and melodies, with Liszt’s original piano writing
generating something with entire worlds of expression of its
own. Korstick’s explosive but always controlled technique is
again breathtaking in the last pages of that Tarantella.
David Owen Norris pointed me in the direction of Jeno Jando’s
Naxos recordings of Liszt during one of BBC Radio 3’s ‘CD Review’
programmes, and I’ve been having a listen to 8.550550 which
covers Années de Pèlerinage III. This is indeed very
good, but I’m not convinced it’s better than Korstick. The Angelus!
is charming but a bit matter of fact, the Aux Cyprès
movements are sonorous and impressive, but lacking in intensity
– and so it goes on. I’m not one to look a gift horse bargain
in the mouth, but with no coupling and at 45 minutes only, this
is a volume 3 to add to the others but not necessarily the steal
it might seem in isolation. The CPO booklet has useful photographs
of some of the locations which made such an impression on Liszt,
and the booklet notes are well written.
With recordings of the utmost clarity and a sometimes startling
veracity of piano tone and colour, these recordings are to my
mind some of the most attractive Liszt I’ve ever heard, and
I have nothing but admiration and wonder for Michael Korstick’s
achievements in this repertoire.