Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Années de pèlerinage (complete)
Sinae Lee (piano)
rec. Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, 2012
NIMBUS NI6202 [3 CDs: 47:46 + 68:23 + 44:34]
Sometimes you come across a recording that just sounds definitive and silences any sort of criticism. Such recordings are quite rare but I would like to suggest that this is one of them. I usually shy away from Liszt. I find him to be overbearing at times so I approached these three CDs with some caution. Straightaway from the opening Chapelle de Guillaume Tell Sinae Lee is magnificent and I was completely blown away by her playing. If I come across a finer solo piano recording than this in the next twelve months I will be surprised - it’s that good. The Jandó recordings for Naxos are excellent but this is playing of a different order.
The Years of Pilgrimage is a musical description of various experiences that the composer had in travelling around Europe. The 26 pieces, written over a 28 year period, are grouped into three years. CD 1 is devoted to year one, Switzerland; CDs 2 and 3 are inspired by Italy.
South Korean born Sinae Lee has won a number of prestigious prizes and now has a busy career as soloist and chamber musician as well as being a lecturer at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She came to greater prominence with her highly praised recording of the complete piano works of Karol Szymanowski on Divine Art (review ~ review). This became a Gramophone Magazine Recommended Recording, BBC Music Magazine Benchmark Recording, MusicWeb Recording of the Month and Pianist Magazine Recommended Recording.
This Liszt recording sounds like a live concert. There is the distinct feeling of a spontaneous outpouring to an audience. At the end of Orage you can almost visualise the pianist having to take a deep breath following such a firework display. The power displayed in this movement and throughout the work is just stunning. OK - to be picky there might be a single wrong note in Vallée D’Obermann but who cares. It’s much better to have a complete movement played as brilliantly as this than a “perfect” sterile edit. Maybe Ms Lee opts for single takes, warts and all. Except there are no warts. It’s not just the power though. The clarity of Ms Lee’s finger-work in the fast, virtuoso passages is phenomenal and breath-taking. It must also be added here that her performances of the more inward-looking, reflective and intimate movements are equally impressive. It’s also patently obvious that Sinae Lee has these works in her repertoire and adores the music. She performed them in their entirety in 2011 both in the UK and Korea and this really shows. I have to admit to never hearing of her before but I will certainly keep my eyes open for future releases.
There’s little or no point in writing a blow-by-blow account of the 26 pieces contained in this set. Suffice to say that there’s not a weakness to be heard - just brilliant musicianship for the best part of three hours. I have a very short attention span. I usually listen to a few minutes of a new CD, move on to something else and then return to it later. It was impossible to do that with this set. I was drawn into the experience for the full duration in one sitting. There’s not one moment of bombast. It’s all about world class technique, supreme phrasing, the ability to make a connection with the audience and having a deep understanding of the music. Ms Lee also “goes for it” in a very big way and she is clearly an artist who enjoys taking risks.
The recording quality is natural, clear and has fine presence. In summary this really is a must-buy set. I’m no Lisztian but this has come as close as possible to converting me. I hope that Nimbus follows this up with more recordings from Ms Lee. She deserves to be heard.

John Whitmore

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CD 1 Première année: Suisse (First Year: Switzerland)
1 Chapelle de Guillaume Tell (William Tell’s Chapel)
2 Au lac de Wallenstadt (At the Lake of Wallenstadt)
3 Pastorale
4 Au bord d’une source (Beside a Spring)
5 Orage (Storm)
6 Vallée d’Obermann (Obermann’s Valley)
7 Églogue (Eclogue)
8 Le mal du pays (Homesickness)
9 Les cloches de Genève: Nocturne (The Bells of Geneva : Nocturne)
CD 2 Deuxième année: Italie (Second Year: Italy)
1 Sposalizio (Marriage)
2 Il pensieroso (The Thinker)
3 Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa (Salvator Rosa’s Song)
4 Sonetto 47 del Petrarca (Petrarca’s Sonnet 47)
5 Sonetto 104 del Petrarca (Petrarca’s Sonnet 104)
6 Sonetto 123 del Petrarca (Petrarca’s Sonnet 123)
7 Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi sonata (After Reading Dante: Fantasia quasi sonata) - Venezia e Nappoli (Venice and Naples) Supplement to the Second Year
8 Gondoliera (Gondolier’s Song)
9 Canzone (Song)
10 Tarantella
CD 3 Troisième année (Third Year)
1 Angélus! Prière aux anges gardiens (Angelus! Prayer to the Guardian Angels)
2 Aux cyprès de la Villa d’Este 1: Thrénodie (To the Cypresses of the Villa d’Este 1: Threnody)
3 Aux cyprès de la Villa d’Este 2: Thrénodie (To the Cypresses of the Villa d’Este 2: Threnody)
4 Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este (The Fountains of the Villa d’Este)
5 Sunt lacrymae rerum / En mode hongrois (“There Are Tears for Things/In The Hungarian Mode”)
6 Marche funèbre (Funeral March)
7 Sursum corda (Lift Up Your Hearts)