Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Venezia e Napoli (1840/1859) [16:50]
Années de Pèlerinage III
Troisième Année (pub. 1883) [55:18]
Michael Korstick (piano)
rec. Congress Centrum Pforzheim, 25-26 July 2010
CPO 777 663-2 [72:18]

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.
Dominy Clements
Nothing but admiration and wonder for this achievement.