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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
The Franciscan Works
Deux Légendes, S.163 [18:17]
San Francesco. Preludio per il Cantico del Sol di San Francesco d’Assisi, S.498c (1880) [4:49]
Cantico del San Francesco, S.499 (1862, arr. 1880) [11:24]
Alleluia et Ave Maria d’Arcadelt, S.183 [8:27]
Les Jeux d’eaux ŕ la Villa d’Este, S.163/4 [8:16]
Miserere d’aprčs Palestrina, S.173/8 [4:01]
Ave Maria Die Glocken von Rom, S.182 [5:42]
Sandro Ivo Bartoli (piano)
rec. 28 May 2015, Reitsadel, Neumarkt i.d. Oberpfalz

Sandro Ivo Bartoli has never really reached the same household-name status as some of his contemporaries, but amongst those in the know his concerts and recordings have always been something to look out for, and his CDs of less well-trodden repertoire by the likes of Busoni, Respighi and a variety of names on The Frescobaldi Legacy album are well worth seeking out.

The PR for this second release from the newly formed Solaire label opens with the surprise had by many when Sandro Ivo Bartoli “moved from London to a small farm in Tuscany, producing his own food and withdrawing to the countryside.” Moving away from the big city doesn’t strike me as particularly strange however. With global travel relatively easy more than one well-known musician has been able to return to their roots and, having made their name sufficiently to be able to choose which projects they would prefer to invest time and artistic energy, can like Sandro Ivo Bartoli “find the time and calm required to focus on studies and typically untypical interests.” This Liszt recording is “the first result of this move” and, as we are told in the glossy and luxurious booklet, remarkably recorded in a single day, fuelled by coffee and cigarettes.

The booklet, with extensive texts by the pianist and Tobias Fischer, more than adequately covers the background to these pieces. Bartoli was set on an exploration of Liszt’s ‘Franciscan’ works after the election of Pope Francis, honouring the new Pope’s humility and other remarkable qualities, while “diving headlong into the darkest period in the life of Liszt.” Central to this superbly recorded programme is a piano version of the Cantico del Sol di San Francesco d’Assisi, the original being scored for baritone, chorus, organ and orchestra. This works remarkably well in both musical and pianistic terms, and there are very few places where you might possibly infer that this is a transcription from much larger forces. Good music can endure in most settings, and with performances like these, infused with such skill and conviction, the genius of the originator is propelled towards us as if he were present.

Few if any pianists have gathered such a substantial collection of these ‘Franciscan’ works into a single recording, but there need be no fear that there is any lack of variety from this rich source of inspiration. The Deux Légendes are of course familiar, but the Preludio per il Canto del Sol di San Francesco d’Assisi was only published in the 1990s, as was the Cantico di San Francesco published in 1983, so there is plenty of less well-known music here. There are of course moments of virtuoso opulence, but the lasting impression is of the uniting of two visionary artistic voices – composer and pianist aligned in a single-minded purpose. There is a view on this music as a conduit for certain messages, and Bartoli points to the formulaic technical semantics Liszt uses to represent nature, bells and the like. The music is however central, and Bartoli writes that “it is a testament to Liszt’s pianistic genius and musical intuition that – in my opinion at least – said musical clichés are hardly noticeable in his hands.”

I don’t always go out of my way to find programmes of Liszt’s piano works, and this CD came as a package with Solaire Records ‘Number 1’ with excellent string orchestra music from Nimrod Borenstein. I’ve picked up and returned to Sandro Ivo Bartoli’s playing on and off for weeks before settling down to write, and each time I learn a little more about the ways he combines energetic vitality with superb clarity, even where textures are thicker and Liszt is throwing chords at us like boulders from the cathedral roof. Bartoli doesn’t ham up the religious moments, with their chorale-like atmosphere. You can’t imagine the Ave Maria d’Arcadele being sung in quite the way it is played here, but you can hear its vocal qualities in the linear weighing of the inner lines, and the softer dynamics are truly heavenly. From the third suite of Années de pčlerinage, the impressionism in Les Jeux d’eaux ŕ la Ville d’Este is like Liszt’s calling card left at Debussy’s door, ready to be picked up when he moved in half a century later. Everywhere there is generous evidence of Bartoli’s poetic presence, warmly linked to a passionate fidelity to these scores and the intent of their creator.

The market isn’t exactly awash with recordings of these works. Artur Pizarro’s admirable control and poetic touch in the Deux Légendes is very much worth seeking out (review) and, hunting further, I came across a striking Ave Maria Die Glocken von Rom from Gábor Farkas (review). These are both good, but don’t have the electricity of intent projected by Sandro Ivo Bartoli. A reliably good resource is the complete Liszt edition from Naxos, but you will find Jenő Jandó’s Cantico di San Francisco on Hugaraton HCD12769. This is another powerful performance, and captures the extreme contrasts of drama and religious piety well, though Jandó tends to blur clarity and impetus just a bit too much with his carefully laid minefield of rubati.

Few if any Liszt programmes have made quite the impression on me than this one has. With a remarkable find piano sound, Solaire’s plush presentation with a sturdy box to house both the jewel case and voluminous texts in a separate booklet, this is highly rewarding object of desire.

Dominy Clements


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