Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Années de pèlerinage: Première année – Suisse, S. 160 (1848-1854)
Chapelle de Guillaume Tell
Au lac de Wallenstadt
Au bord d’une source
Le mal du pays
Les cloches de Genève
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
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
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
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
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.