Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Années de Pèlerinage Book I (Suisse) [46:43]; Book II (Italie) [47:22]
Craig Sheppard (piano)
rec. 20-21 October 2011, Meany Theater, Seattle
ROMÉO RECORDS 7289/90 [46:43 + 47:22]
Sheppard’s Liszt can be heard at its best in the second Swiss piece, “Au lac de Wallenstadt”. The “dolcissimo egualmente” left hand murmurs impressionistically and the melody is warmly sung above it. Go to Alfred Brendel and you will hear something more. The triplet figure at the beginning of each bar is just slightly brought out and somehow takes on a life of its own. Without heavy-handing pointing, Brendel makes us aware of the music’s harmonic, as well as melodic, shape. So that makes two dimensions you don’t get from Sheppard.
So it goes on, really. Sheppard handles “Chapelle de Guillaume Tell” ably, but Brendel makes us more aware of the grandeur of the opening page, his recitative and subsequent “Allegro vivace” are elemental, the notes are not just clearly in place, they combine to create imagery. “Pastorale” goes nicely enough from both, though Brendel allows himself fractionally more time, which seems an advantage. Indeed, allowing the music its space seems fundamental to much of this Swiss book, and Brendel is generally better at doing this.
Sheppard is gentle, almost lazy with “Au bord d’un source”, a summer brook that may find its admirers. Brendel moves it on slightly more. Go to Eileen Joyce for a performance that has Liszt’s bejewelled dissonances sparkle with the something of the iridescence of the best performances of Ravel’s “Jeux d’eau”. “Orage” contrasts Sheppard’s well-handled octave-study with Brendel’s raging elements.
Brendel’s “Vallée d’Obermann” has never seemed to me one of his best performances, but the beginning at least evokes philosophical musings, existential unease compared with Sheppard’s salon confidences. Sheppard has some good moments, such as the start of the final E major section, but both pianists rush their fences at times and lose the patient Brucknerian build-up over the vast long span.
Sheppard notes with approval in his accompanying essay that most modern pianists play “Eclogue” two-in-a-bar not four - “I’ve often wondered why Liszt did not correct this apparent oversight when editing the first edition of Les Années”. Perhaps because he didn’t want it to jog along like a pretty polka, as it does at times here. The question is surely not one of two or four but of atmosphere. Arguably, Debussy revisited this landscape in “Bruyères” and the “right” tempo for “Eclogue” would be that which brings out a similar sense of secret ecstasy. “Le mal du pays” suggests nervousness rather than unease - more space to the pauses might have helped - and the excitable later stages of “Les cloches de Genêve” fail to explain what - if anything - raises this Liszt piece above the many once-popular bell pieces of its time, such as Léfebure-Wely’s “Le cloches du Monastère”.
The first three Italian pieces are decorously played, though I personally prefer a stridingly purposeful “Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa” to the skittish thing we have here. With the Petrarch Sonnets I begin to take issue more strongly. It’s true that many pianists today seem unable to separate melody and accompaniment in the texture, but when the tune proper begins in Sonnet 47 the total subjugation of the accompaniment goes to far. Surely a degree of dialogue between the two is needed. We also lose the psychological value of the syncopations, the melody seemingly on the beat. In the sixth bar of Sonnet 104 we have a phrase marked crescendo, with an accent at its apex. Sheppard pitches in forte, reversing the crescendo and replacing the accent with a sudden piano. Frankly, this is a type of expressive device I associate more with a night club pianist than a classical artist. As is the sudden lunge at the beginning of the C sharp minor phrase (bar 23, with upbeat). More of the same in Sonnet 123. The regular beginning of a phrase with a strong accent, even when the phrase is marked with a crescendo and should logically begin softly, as in the phrase beginning with an E natural in bar 27, is, in vocal terms, more Nat King Cole than Fischer-Dieskau. Sheppard stresses his use of modern editions, particularly the Henle, so here I have to tread carefully since I have the old Sauer (Peters) in front of me. I can only say that, if the repeated calls on the last page-and-a-half for “dolcissimo armonioso … dolcemente … sempre dolce … perdendo …” are all inventions by Sauer - but I doubt this - and if modern editions have instead, on Liszt’s authority, “forte e sempre ben declamato”, which is how Sheppard plays it until the last bar or two, then Sauer seems at least spiritually right.
The technical demands of the Dante Sonata - well met - keep Sheppard on the straight and narrow and this is one of the higher spots of these discs. I suppose it’s inevitable, in a live recording, that by the time the last bars are reached the lower notes for the left hand tremolo are thoroughly out of tune, but that’s not Sheppard’s fault.
It was a pleasure after this to take out of cold storage the old Westminster recording of the Italian book by Edith Farnadi, a Hungarian pianist who died rather young and who was particularly noted for her Liszt, of which she recorded a good deal. Generally speaking her natural, unsensational but far from passionless musicianship shows the composer at his best. The differences are most striking in the three Sonnets, where the melodies have a flow and a shape, as opposed to grinding from bloated note to bloated note. You hardly seem to be listening to the same music.
I have enjoyed some past issues in this by now extensive series from Sheppard - I remember some Rachmaninov and some Schumann in particular. Either he is not attuned to Liszt or I am not attuned to his way of seeing Liszt. Sheppard’s own notes show an awareness of the philosophical Liszt that I, personally, did not always detect in the actual performances.
Christopher Howell
Either Sheppard is not attuned to Liszt or I am not attuned to his way of seeing Liszt.