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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Années de pélerinage; Première année - Suisse [47:06]
Légende No.2, St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots [8:13]
Bonus DVD: A film by Bruno Monsaingeon of Années de pélerinage; Suisse [55:18]
Francesco Piemontesi (piano)
rec. 2017, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano, Switzerland
ORFEO C944182I [55:00]

Francesco Piemontesi has been building an impressive discography, obtaining good reviews for a number of issues in recent years, of which I found his Debussy Preludes particularly notable, even in a very crowded field. Now he has arrived at Liszt, and what better work from this still young Swiss artist (born 1983 in Locarno) than the composer’s inspirations deriving mostly from his Swiss travels of the mid 1830’s, the Années de pélerinage; Première année – Suisse. This a very fine traversal of this demanding music, for Piemontesi is persuasive in every one of the nine numbers.

Piemontesi opens in beguiling style, and with some subtle rubato in a noble account of the Chapelle de Guillaume Tell – his mentor Alfred Brendel said that Liszt should always sound noble. He then shows an especially intimate and confiding way with the lyrical smaller pieces, which he treats with exquisite poise and delicate poetry, especially the ‘water pieces’ of Au lac de Wallenstadt and Au bord d'une source (pieces which were once part of a single work in the 1830’s Album d’un voyageur). In the former he deploys a remarkable range of touch with seemingly infinite gradations of soft playing. And in the latter Liszt’s appended Schiller quotation - “In the whispering coolness young nature’s play begins” – seems reflected in the whispering coolness of the pianism. Orage (‘Storm’) is of course a portrait of nature in her wildest mood, and the torrent of plunging octaves, rattling tremolos and chromatic scales, – all very cleanly executed here – suggest in the Romantic aesthetic a storm in the soul as much as in the world. It provides the dramatic shift of mood from the lyrical pieces to the high drama of Vallée d'Obermann – there is nothing random about Liszt’s skilful sequencing of this cycle.

That piece, placed sixth of the nine numbers, is the emotional heart of the book and one of Liszt’s great tone poems – it might not be one of those for orchestra but it has abundant programmatic suggestiveness and characteristic thematic transformations. It is also the most challenging to interpret, since its multiple sections and nearly thirteen minute length make it more than twice as long as any other piece in the cycle. The challenge is to take it as one great arc, and build a compelling narrative from first to last. This I think Piemontesi achieves – if I hesitate it is only because some others have made still more of this single work, especially torn from the cycle of which it is the structural capstone. In the context of Piemontesi’s particularly lyrical view of the whole cycle though, it is very satisfyingly delivered. It also the one piece he has recorded before, as part of a mixed recital, where he took nearly a minute longer, and not to the work’s advantage.

Eglogue and Le mal du pays again display the subtlety of his rubato and touch, which never disrupts the pulse. The latter of course means ‘homesickness’ and Liszt – and Piemontesi – reflect the fact that nostalgia was once known as the morbus helveticus – the Swiss disease. The evocative treatment of Les cloches de Genève introduces an overt religious mood, thus leading to an appropriate filler in “St Francis of Paola walking on the waves”, its crowning miracle a triumph of pianism as well as of faith.

The issue also has a bonus DVD of a film by Bruno Monsaingeon of Piemontesi playing the same Swiss book of the Années de pélerinage (but not, as far as I could tell, the Legend No.2, despite its presence on the DVD’s title screen and the listing of 10 tracks, not 9). We are not told the relation of the CD recordings to the filmed ones, but the timings and interpretations are pretty close. This is basically a film of Piemontesi at the keyboard, but each piece is prefaced in some way: with shots of Swiss scenery, with the pianist speaking (in Italian and French) about the music, and/or with a reading from the texts that Liszt printed in the scores, from Schiller, Byron and Senancour. For the last item Piemontesi even visits the Geneva and plays the carillon for us. Each such preface has its point, but if you just want to watch and hear the music played, you will have to have these prefaces each time, as they are not separately tracked. If you want a film of the Années de pélerinage then Brendel’s splendid Unitel DVD of the first two books (Suisse and Italie) cannot be beaten. This was issued in 2006 from a still fine-sounding 1980’s film. And Brendel’s brief spoken introductions on the music, which cover the intellectual provenance and the extra-musical references of each piece, are separately tracked – and on my copy the access points actually work as labelled, (contrary to the claims of one Amazon UK reviewer). Every Lisztian and Brendel admirer should own this.

There are several fine recent recordings of the Swiss book among complete traversals of the Années de pélerinage, led for me by issues from Louis Lortie and Bertrand Chamayou in the Liszt centenary year of 2011. And of course the great “Three B’s” of the past in complete versions remain available: Brendel, Bolet and Berman. But there are also a few notable discs in the catalogue of just this première année. First among these is probably still the 2005 Hyperion account from Stephen Hough, which was the ‘Building a Library’ choice when BBC Radio 3 last surveyed the field (review). That is still deeply satisfying and a lot more generous with couplings, the three opera paraphrases that Liszt made from Gounod taking the total time to more than 75 minutes. (And the virtuosic 10 minute version of the ‘Waltz from Faust’ is a real hidden gem in the Liszt catalogue). But this supremely accomplished version from Francesco Piemontesi belongs in this company, a distinguished account of a seminal work, beautifully played and recorded.

Roy Westbrook

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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