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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Années de pèlerinage, Première Année – Suisse S160 (1855) [50:14]
Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude S173/3 (1852) [17:32]
Charles Owen (piano)
Rec. October 2020, Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Cobham, UK
AVIE AV2476 [67:47]

I have always had a soft spot for the Swiss book of the Années de pèlerinage (Years of travel). The second book, dealing with Italy, is perhaps more obviously appealing, with its subjects taken from literature and art, and the third book, also Italian, written much later, is a completely different thing, but the Swiss book is a wonderfully poetic collection, the work of a young man enjoying the sights and sounds of Switzerland, but also, since he was a highly cultivated man, looking to literature for inspiration. It is completely different from the operatic fantasies and virtuoso études that he wrote during the same period, with the emphasis being on poetic evocation, and virtuosity, when it does come in, being at the service of the poetic idea.

In fact, this collection took a long time to achieve its final form. Liszt wrote earlier versions of these pieces in a collection called Album d’un voyageur, published in 1842, with ideas in them going back to 1835, when Liszt and his lover the Countess Marie d’Agoult left Paris for Switzerland. Liszt later withdrew this series – though it has its own interest and you can find a recording of it in Leslie Howard’s Liszt series on Hyperion – and revised some of the pieces into the collection as we have it today. Several of them have epigraphs from Schiller, Byron and Sénancour, whose gloomy novel Obermann was a favourite of the time. In the first edition, each piece was prefaced by a lithograph by Robert Kretschmer and these are, very helpfully, reproduced in the booklet for this disc. I have never seen them before and it was a pleasure to find them.

In a note, Charles Owen said that he worked on these pieces during the first Covid lockdown, during which the imagery of journeying took an on extra meaning for him. The first piece, Chapelle de Guillaume Tell, evokes the Swiss national hero’s heroic leap to freedom, at the site of which there is now a chapel. Alpine horn calls resound through the mountains. Owen makes the tremolos supporting these – an effect of which Liszt was perhaps slightly too fond – sound convincing and he does not force his tone in the climaxes. Au lac de Wallenstadt is one of the earliest of Liszt’s numerous evocations of water, a charming piece with a lovely main tune. Pastorale is a folk-style dance in triple time; Owen does not fail to notice that much of it is marked pianissimo and it does not rise above un poco marcato. Au bord d’une source (Beside a spring) is another water evocation, skilfully written in that the main melody alternates between crossing hands, though the listener would never guess this from its seamless flow.

With Orage (storm), the mood darkens. This is a violent piece, full of double octaves, thirds in both hands and strenuous writing going to the top of the keyboard. This piece is of a kind Liszt often wrote, going up to his last years. The Vallée d’Obermann, named from the hero of Sénancour’s novel, continues the gloomy mood but in a melancholy more than in a violent idiom and with some bold, expressive harmonies. It is much the longest piece in the book, and it does sprawl somewhat, though Owen does a good job holding it all together. It contains another storm and a closing triumphant passage, which, however, is undercut by the final cadence.

In the Eglogue which follows, the mood has changed completely, and we are at an evocation of dawn, as described by Byron in the lines which prefix the piece. There are two main ideas, both delightful and well contrasted, and the level never rises above forte. Le mal du pays is homesickness, which is short and sad. Les cloches de Genève (the bells of Geneva), subtitled Nocturne, is the final piece in the collection. It was originally dedicated to Liszt’s daughter Blandine, who was born in 1835, and the piece reflects his happiness at the time with Marie d’Agoult.

There is room for a substantial extra. Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (Blessing of God in the wilderness) is the longest and finest piece from Liszt’s collection, Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, of 1853. Liszt was a profoundly religious man and this piece evokes the mood of peace and faith expressed in the lines of Lamartine which prefix the score. As Humphrey Searle rightly said, ‘it expresses that mood of mystical contemplation which Beethoven attained in his last period, but which is rarely found elsewhere in music.’ The beautiful main theme has a shimmering accompaniment above it, which flows easily and naturally here despite the extreme trickiness of the actual notes.

I really enjoyed these performances. Owen observes Liszt’s directions closely and naturally and his playing has tremendous verve. The music flows with apparent ease, though a glance at the score is enough to make one realise that this is the art which conceals art. I also noticed with pleasure that he avoids the temptation of taking the more obviously virtuoso passages fast when they should be delicate, or loud when they should be soft. The piano, a brand-new Steinway model D, gives of its best and the recording does it justice. The booklet notes are interesting and helpful, and the Kretschmer pictures a welcome bonus.

There are, as one would expect, many other recordings, both of this Swiss book by itself and of the complete set of Années de pèlerinage. But I was not inclined to make comparisons: Owen’s performance stands by itself and is very welcome.

Stephen Barber

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