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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Années de pèlerinage: Première année – Suisse, S. 160 (1848-1854)
Chapelle de Guillaume Tell [5:22]
Au lac de Wallenstadt [3:27]
Pastorale [1:31]
Au bord d’une source [3:48]
Orage [4:12]
Vallée d’Obermann [12:45]
Eglogue [3:16]
Le mal du pays [5:56]
Les cloches de Genève [6:44]
Deux Légendes, S. 175 (1863)
No. 2: St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots [8:14]
Francesco Piemontesi (piano)
rec. 2017, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano, Switzerland
Reviewed as a 16-bit press download
Pdf booklet included
ORFEO C944182I [55:00]

We all have them – musical blind spots, that is – and Liszt’s orchestral output is one of mine. His solo piano works are another matter, and it’s good to see so many fine pianists tackling this challenging repertoire. Devotees will no doubt be aware of Leslie Howard’s mammoth 98-disc set (Hyperion) and the still unfolding series from Naxos, with, among others, William Wolfram, Steven Mayer and the late-lamented Joel Hastings. There are also splendid single albums from Risto-Matti Marin (Alba) and Gábor Farkas (Steinway); both are fine artists with a clear and compelling affinity for these virtuosic scores.

Some critics maintain Liszt was better at transcribing the works of others than he was at crafting his own, but one only need hear the astonishing range and sophistication of, say, his Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) to realise how wide of the mark that is. These three collections, the first inspired by the composer’s travels in Switzerland, the second and third by his time in Italy, have done fairly well on record. There are high-profile accounts of Suisse from the likes of Stephen Hough (Hyperion) and Lazar Berman (Deutsche Grammophon), not to mention Jorge Bolet, who has always been sans pareil in this piece (Decca).

Enter the Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi (b. 1983), whose recording of Mozart’s Piano concertos 25 and 26, with Andrew Manze and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, was described by Michael Greenhalgh as ‘a breath of fresh air’ (Linn). Also, Jonathan Woolf was pretty positive about Piemontesi’s pairing of the Schumann and Dvořák concertos, with the late Jiří Bělohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Naïve). That’s most encouraging, but how does he cope with Liszt’s S. 160, a very exposed, often ground-breaking score?

Eight of the nine sections of Suisse are revisions of pieces from the earlier Album d'un voyageur: Impressions et Poésies, some more extensively altered than others. Piemontesi’s Chapelle de Guillaume Tell, both hefty and poetic, certainly makes for a stirring start. Goodness, this is playing of real authority and insight, manifested in plenty of inner detail and a thrilling sense of drama. And although I’ve not always been kind about Orfeo recordings in the past, this one, full, warm and ideally balanced, has astonishing presence and power, the treble refined, the bass firm and sonorous.

Piemontesi’s Au lac de Wallenstadt is beautifully shaped, its burbling beat clean and clear. I was enchanted by the ease and naturalness of his playing, which makes the otherwise spontaneous Hough seem a little stilted at times. As much as I enjoy the latter’s Suisse, Piemontesi outpoints him at almost every turn. There’s no doubting the virtuosity of Hough’s Liszt, but it lacks the swell and surge that his Swiss rival brings to this music. Take the darkly turbulent Orage (Storm), for example, where the latter fuses formidable technique with a deep-seated passion that few can match.

Piemontesi does charm and sensitivity, too; witness the sun-dappled little Pastorale and the shimmer and sparkle of Au bord d’une source. His colour palette is both subtle and striking, his control of dynamics exemplary; what’s more, it’s all rendered in ravishing sound. Indeed, if the quality of this 16-bit download is anything to go by, the high-res one should be a sonic treat. But it’s the playing that deserves the highest praise, the substantial Vallée d’Obermann imbued with a strong, conflicting character that realises – in full – the expressive reach and harmonic ambition of this masterpiece.

The very best piano recordings transport listeners into the hall or studio, allowing them to eavesdrop on the performance, as it were. This is one such. I really appreciated the intimacy of Piemontesi’s Eclogue and Le mal du pays, although some of the dynamic contrasts are a mite overdone. I also feel he strives a little too hard for effect in Les cloches de Genève, but these are a minor quibbles when it’s all so feelingly done. The programme ends with a suitably flamboyant account of the second of Liszt’s Deux Légendes. As with Orage, Piemontesi is uncompromising in his control of Liszt’s grander moments, his blend of body and detail perfectly matched by sound that’s firm and fearless.

At the outset I was pretty confident this pretender wouldn’t dislodge Bolet’s crown, but minutes into this new album I began to have my doubts. That Decca recording, made in Kingsway Hall in 1984, sounds as good as I remembered it, but I’d quite forgotten how pellucid – and patrician – the playing is. Unlike Piemontesi, Bolet opts for a seamless, finely calibrated approach that makes rivals – Hough especially – seem almost gauche by comparison. For all his interior loveliness, Bolet whips up quite a terrific storm, but it’s the peal of those Genevan bells that really takes my breath away (as it did when I first heard this CD thirty years ago).

As John France intimated in his review of the Hough recording, there are many ways to play this music, and the startling – often revelatory – contrast between Piemontesi and Bolet is ample proof of that. In this spirit of inclusion, I’d still recommend Hough’s Suisse – coupled with two operatic paraphrases – although, ultimately, his rivals are richer and more rewarding. As for Bolet, my admiration for his performance is undimmed; ditto John Pellowe’s splendid recording. But, such is the distinction, consistency and insight of Piemontesi’s Suisse – plus the glorious sound – that I’d urge all Lisztians to invest in both.

Outstanding performances, perfectly pitched and beautifully caught; Piemontesi is a pianist to watch.

Dan Morgan



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