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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Les Harmonies de l’Esprit: Sacred Piano Works
Après une Lecture du Dante S.161/7 (1849) [19:28]
ConsolationsSix Pensées Poétiques (1849-50) S.172 [19:39]
‘Liebestraum No.3: O lieb, so lang du lieben kanst!’ S.541 (1850) [5:43]
‘Légende No.2: St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots’ S.175 (1862-3) [9:36]
Ingrid Carbone (piano)
rec. 2018., Chiesa san Fili, (Cosenza), Italy.

Some accounts of Liszt’s life and work make his taking of minor orders in July 1865 sound like a sudden volte-face, a total change of character and direction. However, the more one looks at Liszt’s life and compositions, the more his Christian faith seems to be a constant in his life (even if sometimes obscured behind the worldlier dimensions of that life).

I am convinced by the honesty of a document (his Will) which Liszt wrote in 1860, in which he appears to show a good deal of self-knowledge (even if expressed with a characteristic sense of the theatrical). I quote from its opening:

“This is my testament.I write it on the date of 14th September, when the church celebrates the elevation of the Holy Cross. The name of this feast also expresses the ardent and mysterious emotion which, like sacred stigmata, has transpierced my entire life. Yes, Christ crucified, the ‘foolishness’ and the elevation of the Cross, this was my true vocation. I have felt it to the depths of my heart from the age of seventeen, when with tears and supplications I begged to be permitted to enter the seminary in Paris, and I hoped that it would be given to me to live the life of the saints and perhaps the death of the martyrs. It has not been so, alas! But never since, through the many sins and errors that I have committed and for which I am sincerely repentant and contrite, has the divine light of the Cross been wholly withdrawn from me. Sometimes it has even flooded my whole soul with its glory. I thank God for it, and I shall die with my soul attached to the Cross, our redemption, our supreme beatitude”. (Quoted from Walter Beckett, Liszt, London, 1963, p.47).

Given the nature of Liszt’s life and character – an artist “who has been variously called mountebank, wizard, Gypsy, priest, revolutionary, snob, Casanova, saint – and all these with some degree of justification at various times” (Louis Kentner, ‘Foreword’, Sacheverell Sitwell, Liszt, Revised edition, 1955), it is surely clear that his faith would be likely to find expression in much of his work, not just in those late works ‘advertised’ as ‘sacred’ such as Christus (1866), the Missa Choralis (1886) or Via Crucis (1879). Indeed, it permeates works whose titles may not seem ‘sacred’, just as it permeated his life despite his “many sins and errors”. Thus, Ingrid Carbone’s CD Les Harmonies De L’Esprit (echoing such Lisztean titles as Harmonies poétiques et religieuses and Harmonies du Soir) carries a subtitle: Sacred Piano Works, though only one work on the disc has an explicitly ‘sacred’ title – the ‘Légende No.2: St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots’.

The disc opens with a compelling performance of Après une Lecture du Dante (or Dante Sonata). The technical complexities of the piece clearly hold no fears for Ms. Carbone, but what I find most effective is the clarity with which she delineates the shape of the work. The essential arc of Après une Lecture du Dante is of a movement through darkness, pain and struggle to light and hope. One could, of course, understand this ‘shape’ as a narrative of redemption. Or we might want to ‘read’ it in more specific terms. As his composition evolved over a number of years, beginning c. 1839, Liszt gave it several titles: ‘Fragment Dantesque’, ‘Paralipomènes à la Divina Commedia’, ‘Prolégomènes à la Divina Comedia: Fantasie symphonique pour piano’ and, finally, Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata. This final title refers, not to the Divina Commedia specifically, but to Dante more generally. The wording of the title derives from that of a poem by Victor Hugo, published in his collection Les Voix Intérieures in 1837, ‘Après une lecture de Dante’. The imagery of Hugo’s poem – such as “Forêt mystérieuse”, “Noir voyage obstrué de rencontres difforme”, the “Spirale aux bords douteux, aux profondeurs énormes,/Don’t les circles hideux vont toujours plus avant/dans une ombre où de meut l’enfer vague et vivant!” – comes exclusively from the Inferno, with no echoes of either Purgatorio or Paradiso. Indeed, according to Mary Anne Roglieri, in her book Dante and Music: Musical adaptations of the Commedia from the sixteenth century to the present (2001, p.164), Hugo’s knowledge of Dante’s great poem went no further than his having read a French prose translation of the Inferno. Liszt’s own familiarity with the Commedia was a good deal more extensive, as evidenced in his letters and essays.

Après une lecture du Dante (in its finished form) was first published in Volume II of his Années de pèlerinage: Deuxième année:Italie. Though I don’t hear the piece as primarily a response to Hugo’s poem, the opening line of that poem does seem to offer a useful way into Liszt’s composition: “Quand le poète peint l’enfer, il peint sa vie” (When the poet paints hell, he paints his life). Here Hugo speaks of the poet ‘painting’. We might surely extend the reference beyond poet and painter to the composer too – ‘when the composer writes of hell, he writes of his life’. Doing so becomes an invitation to read Liszt’s Après une lecture du Dante as an essentially autobiographical work, a work of self-reflection and assessment. While I cannot know that this is how Ingrid Carbone views the work, such a reading is wholly compatible with the way she plays it. Carbone’s interpretation is somewhat less ‘infernal’ than many performances I have heard, more intimate and less ‘epic’. She makes Après une lecture du Dante sound like a work of introspection, rather than a depiction of the horrors of Dante’s hell. Listening to her performance of this great piece I hear not so much a depiction of the sufferings and lamentations of the sinners trapped in hell, as of Liszt’s pained recollection of his own “sins and errors” (to quote his 1860 ‘testament’ again). Carbone finds subtle poetic nuances, rather than spectacular melodrama in this remarkable composition.

I think it may be relevant to remember the title of the collection in which the finished work first appeared, Années de pèlerinage. Clearly the second noun here has nothing to do with medieval pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostella or wherever. Its more obvious connection is with romantic age usages as in Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-18) or Lamartine’s ‘homage’ (by way of continuation) to that poem, Le Dernier Chant du pèlerinage d’Harold (1825). In these contexts, words such as pilgrimage and pèlerinage have the sense, not of religiously inspired journeys to a specific holy place, so much as ‘journeys’ (both external and internal) of growth and artistic/spiritual development. (Liszt certainly knew the work of both poets – indeed the score of the Swiss volume of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage contains some quotations from Byron’s poem and Lamartine’s verse collection of 1830, Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses was a direct inspiration of Liszt’s collection of piano pieces, with the same title, published in 1851). In such romantic poems the word pilgrimage come close to the sense of the wanderjahre or lehrjahre in Goethe’s great novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795/6), which can also be read as a kind of pilgrimage/pilgerfahrt.
David Trippett (‘Après une lecture de Liszt: Virtuosity and Werktreue in the “Dante” Sonata”’, 19th Century Music, 32;1, 2008, pp.52-93. Quotation from p.52) writes that “The change in direction in Franz Liszt’s career that took place during the autumn of 1847 was spectacular. That year he retired from the concert stage, finally accepted a salaried conductorship, and first met Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. Writing to his new patron, the Grand Duke Carl Alexander, Liszt alluded to Dante to mark his transformation: ‘The time has come for me (Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita – thirty-five years old!) to break out of my virtuoso’s chrysalis and allow my thoughts unfettered flight’”. The letter from which Trippett quotes is dated October 6, 1846. That Liszt should quote the opening words of the Inferno, and recognize that he is now the very same age as the ‘Dante’ at the beginning of the poem, at the very period in which he was bringing the long gestation of this particular work to completion suggests that he found in Dante’s poem a kind of ‘parable’ of his own life. It is, of course, to take a step further, to suggest that in Après une lecture du Dante he created a kind of musical version of that same parable, that the work – rather than being about Victor Hugo’s poem or even Dante’s epic – is about Liszt’s own life, that it is one of the many great imaginative autobiographies of the Romantic age. In Ingrid Carbone’s recording of Après une lecture du Dante I find a deeply thoughtful reading of the work which is compatible with such a view of it – reminiscent of Hugo’s first line, “Quand le poète peint l’enfer, il peint sa vie”.

Miss Carbone’s Liszt exploration continues with the six Consolations, written c. 1849/50. The first thing to say is that I am delighted that she chose to record all six, since I have always felt that Consolations constitutes a sequence or cycle, rather than just a collection of short pieces. In her generally illuminating booklet essay Chiara Bertoglio observes that in its title “the most likely allusion is to the Consolations, a series of poems by … Charles Sainte-Beuve, though a reference to Une larme, ou Consolation by Alphonse du Lamartine is also possible.” I long accepted happily (and rather lazily) the idea that Liszt’s title alluded to Sainte-Beuve’s collection Les Consolations of 1830 since the connection seemed self-evidently probable; but I didn’t give any real thought to how the connection might throw light on Liszt’s set of six piano pieces. However, a few years ago, I decided to read the book by Sainte-Beuve more carefully. I have one suggestion to offer which comes from that reading. Sainte-Beuve’s sequence is concerned, in part, with the recognition that in his earlier experiences of ‘love’ he had, in the words of Michael Pickwood, found in it only “a source of sensual pleasure or a pretext for self-pity” (‘Sainte-Beuve and Dante’, Modern Language Review, 77:3, 1982, pp. 568-576). Now, however, he has discovered love which gives him access to something more spiritual, to a kind of religious faith. Thus, in the fourth poem of the sequence the ‘poet’ addresses God, affirming that “Aimer, c’est croire en toi”. Liszt’s relationship with Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, (his Consolations, though some existed in earlier versions, were finalized between 1848 and 1850), seems to have prompted an analogous kind of realization. Liszt had behind him a long list of what an earlier age would have called flirtations and dalliances. But the Princess was different. She was deeply religious and her influence on Liszt served to bring his faith into a position of greater and more stable prominence in the rich heterogeneity of his complex personality. We know that the two of them frequently prayed together and that the books they read together included some religious and theological works. Chiara Bertoglio points out that the fourth of the Consolations carries the performance direction cantabile con divozione. In his 1995 edition of the Consolations Maurice Hinson describes No. 4 as “prayerlike”. It may also be worth noting that four of the set (no.1-2 and 6-7) are in E major, which Paul Merrick (Revolution and Religion in the Music of Liszt, 1987, p.297) refers to as a key frequently used by Liszt for religious subjects. There are, in short, a good number of reasons to justify viewing this set of six pieces as “sacred piano works”, rather than mere salon miniatures. I suspect that a further ‘justification’ can be offered. Though I know of no proof, it seems to me entirely possible that the theologically minded Princess Carolyn – the future author of a work in 24 volumes (!), Des causes intérieures de la faiblesse extérieure de l’Église – might have introduced the Exercita spiritualia (Spiritual Exercises) by Ignatius Loyola to the couple’s shared reading and devotional practice. One whole section of this very influential book is devoted to “Spiritual Consolation”. St. Ignatius writes: “I use the word ‘consolation’ when any interior movement is produced in the soul which leads her to become inflamed with the love of her Creator and Lord, and when as a consequence, there is no creature on the face of the earth that the person can love in itself, but they love it in the Creator and Lord of all things. Similarly, I use the word ‘consolation’ when a person sheds tears which lead to the love of our Lord, whether they arise from grief over sins or over the passion of Christ our Lord, or because of other reasons immediately directed towards his service and praise. Lastly, I give the name ‘consolation’ to every increase of hope, faith, and charity, to all interior happiness which calls and attracts to heavenly things and to the salvation of one’s soul, leaving the soul quiet and at peace in her Creator and Lord.” (translation by Michael Ivens, S.J., 2004). (Several French translations would have been available to Liszt and his partner). If that possibility is allowed, the spiritual nature of Liszt’s Consolations seems still clearer.

Certainly, as performed by Ingrid Carbone, these pieces have a depth of feeling and aspiration which it is not hard to think of as ‘sacred’. She captures very well the reflective and sometimes ‘melancholy’ nature (one thinks of Loyola’s identification of some tears as a form of spiritual consolation) of these pieces. Invited, by the contexts cited above, and by Carbone’s playing, what has often seemed mere sentimentality in these pieces appears as something more profound, as a kind of spiritual self-knowledge and prayer. Carbone invests No.1 – which often sounds merely wistful – with a degree of gravity. The third is serene (it is marked lento placido), while No.4 feels like an act of private prayer: in its intimacy and restrained power it brought to my mind two of the ‘definitions’ of prayer contained in a poem, ‘Prayer (1)’ by the seventeenth-century English poet George Herbert – “Gods breath in man returning to his birth, / The soul in paraphrase”. This is an utterly persuasive reading of a generally underrated set of pieces.

The two remaining works on the disc – ‘Liebestraum No.3’ and ‘Légende No.2: St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots’ – present very different cases. Miss Carbone’s performance of ‘Liebestraum’ (does one really need to give it its number, since one so rarely encounters the other two?) is, unsurprisingly, utterly competent and intelligent, but it is well-nigh impossible for even a fine pianist to salvage the piece from the effects of overfamiliarity. Ms. Carbone doesn’t finally persuade me that this is a ‘sacred’ work. Nor can I see that the poem by Ferdinand Freiligarth to which Liszt’s piece refers (and the first four verses of which he set as a song) suggests a sacred significance.

There is, of course, no doubt as to the sacred nature of the last piece on this disc – the second of Liszt’s Deux Légendes, ‘St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots’. St. Francis of Paula (1416-1507) was born at Paula in Calabria; though, like St. Francis of Assisi he was never ordained as a priest, his strong faith and his life of humility and austerity gained him followers and he established a mendicant order, known as the Order of Minims, the name expressing the commitment to extreme humility and abstinence. The order was approved by the Bishop of Cosenza (Ms. Carbone’s home city, incidentally) in 1470 – a decision confirmed by Pope Sixtus IV in 1474. Some of the stories told of Francis relate to his gift of prophecy, but the one to which Liszt’s composition responds concerns an occasion when Francis and a companion wished to cross the straits of Messina to Sicily. Francis lacked the money to pay the boatman the required fare and the boatman refused to carry him. Francis prayed for God’s assistance and then spread his cloak on the water, supporting part of it with his staff in the manner of a sail and completed the crossing by this means.

Liszt’s interest in this legend may have reflected the fact that its protagonist was his name saint. Though a relatively well-known piece, it has not suffered from ‘celebrity’ in the way that ‘Liebestraum No.3’ has. It is clearly programmatic, beginning with the opening hymn-like theme, resonant and stately (presumably ‘representing’ Francis’s invocation of God’s assistance), which later has to fight for survival against rapid scales and tremolos (the power of the waves?), until it is restated forcefully at the end of the piece (a safe arrival and the triumph of faith). Sacheverell Sitwell might be thought to have gone overboard (no pun intended) in his praise of this piece, writing of ‘St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots’, “it is a truly astonishing production […] As pictorial suggestion, as direct interpretation of the story into music, as creation of immediate visual effect by that means, this piece of music is without precedent” (pp.246-7).

Ingrid Carbone’s performance of this piece is richly evocative without ever descending into imitative literalism of an over-simple kind. She respects it as a piece of music, not allowing it to become mere musical onomatopoeia. The structure of the work – the relationship between its elements and the significance of that relationship - is always clear and purposeful. Nothing is done for mere effect. One might, however, feel that the triumphant restatement of the opening theme doesn’t ‘ring out’ as much as it should. I am inclined, however, to think that this sense is a product of an unsatisfactory recorded sound – which has too limited a dynamic range and a somewhat weak bass – rather than a misjudgment by Carbone.

Overall, however, I didn’t find that the problems with the recorded sound seriously impacted on my enjoyment of a fine disc – a debut recording of a distinctive programme, well played.

Glyn Pursglove

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