Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Années de pèlerinage: Italie S.161
Sposalizio [7:38}
Il Penseroso [3:59]
Canzonetta Del Salvator Rosa [2:51]
Sonetto 47 Del Petrarca [5:54]
Sonetto 104 Del Petrarca [5:31]
Sonetto 123 Del Petrarca [6:31]
Gondoliera S. 162 No. 1 (from Venezia e Napoli) [5:30]
Deux Légendes, S.175:
Saint François D'Assise: La Prédication Aux Oiseaux [10:11]
Saint François De Paule Marchant Sur Les Flots [8:54]
Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
rec. Beethovensaal, Hanover, September 1974, SACD remastering 2014.
PENTATONE PTC5186220 SACD [57:05]

This is one of the most famous and essential Liszt recordings ever made. It is second only to that which the same pianist made, of the same music, for Decca in 1950. Indeed Alfred Brendel, a profound admirer of Kempff’s Liszt, has said Kempff’s discs of this music are “the greatest we have” – but regarded the earlier recording as even better than this one, made nearly a quarter of a century later when the pianist was nearly eighty years old. Those earlier Decca versions were selected by Brendel for inclusion in the second Kempff volume of Philips’ ‘Great Pianists of the 20th Century’ series in 1999, and resurfaced once more in 2013 on the Australian label Eloquence, in a 2-CD set with Kempff’s Liszt concertos. On that issue the solo items are nearly, but not quite, the same as on this Pentatone reissue of the DGG 1975 disc. In 1950 there was no Sposalizio but instead three of the best pieces from the Swiss volume of the ‘Years of Pilgrimage’.

The second book of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage (‘Years of Pilgimage’) draws upon the art and literature of Italy for its inspiration, and is among his best and best-loved music. The title of Sposalizio refers to Raphael’s painting Lo sposalizio della Vergine (The Marriage of the Virgin), and has a tranquil opening but rises to a passionate climax. It is the longest item here from the Années de Pèlerinage Book II and Kempff binds the sections together in a continuous flow, because he never exaggerates, or draws attention to one section at the expense of others. His lyrical playing at the outset is magical – one hears at once why Brendel said Kempff was the best at playing the lyrical Liszt. Il Penseroso refers to Michelangelo’s statue of “The Thinker” from the Medici tomb in Florence, and its profundity is searchingly explored by Kempff’s sheer concentration. This playing invites you to attend to nuance, and rewards that attention. The three Petrarch Sonnets are transcriptions, or more accurately transformations, of his vocal settings of those texts. They too are essentially lyrical, love music of the ripest mid-nineteenth century vintage, but somehow chaste, at least in playing as poised and crystalline as this.

But Kempff can excel in a lighter mood also, as both Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa, a jaunty march, and the lilting barcarolle of Gondoliera, amply demonstrate. The latter for instance has a bewitching opening, thanks to Kempff’s mastery of keyboard colour, and his subtle rubato. The first of the two religious pieces or Deux Légendes, “St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds”, is ingenious in its depiction of the avian congregation, even anticipating Messiaen in that respect, and nicely evoked by Kempff’s truly birdlike trills. In the second Legend, “St. Francis of Paola walking on the water,” Liszt depicts the power of faith to undertake the seemingly impossible. The threatening tumult of the waves brings a thunderous roar from Kempff’s playing of the chromatically stormy passages, until triumph is announced by his grandly sounded and phrased victory chorale as the miracle is achieved.

The forty year old recording comes from Deutsche Grammophon’s original multi-channel tapes, and sounds superb in this surround sound SACD incarnation, with rich bass, distinctive keyboard colouring throughout the range, and a dynamic range which does justice both to the whispering pp passages and to those moments when Liszt’s piano writing seems to emulate a large orchestra. Of course this same recording is still available from DG on its ‘Originals’ reissues label at about a third the price of this. If your h-fi is high end, you will want the Pentatone remastering. But the original recording was very good indeed for its day, and still sounds excellent in DG’s stereo CD.

It has been very instructive to renew acquaintance with these versions, for Wilhelm Kempff’s performance on this recording still seems to me among the best Liszt playing on record. In one way it is patrician piano playing from another age, and in another it sounds contemporary in its absence of indulgent high romantic rhetoric. It still compels admiration not because of the pianist’s dazzling virtuosity (though he is in full technical command) but because it is supremely musical, and does full justice to a great composer, treating Liszt as the noble and visionary artist he was.

Roy Westbrook

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