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Hyperion Records

CDA67424 - Liszt: Années de pèlerinage – Suisse
CDA67424

Recording details: May 2003
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Release date: August 2005
DISCID: 8911A60C
Total duration: 75 minutes 3 seconds

CLASSICAL CD OF THE WEEK (The Sunday Times)

'It's clear that Stephen Hough has technically and spiritually digested the first book of Années de pèlerinage to the extent that he can risk personalising certain pieces without sounding the least bit mannered' (Gramophone)

'Stephen Hough handles this more intimate side of Liszt admirably, with playing of great expressive warmth … as a bonus, Hough throws in Liszt's three operatic paraphrases from Gounod, playing the fine reverie after Romeo and Juliet quite beautifully, and tossing off the virtuoso transcription of the waltz from Faust with appropriate panache' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Always a fastidious pianist, Stephen Hough conjures subtle sonorities in these tender aquarelles … Hough's elegance minimises the music's vulgarity, while he is in his element in the dreamy fantasies on themes from Roméo et Juliette and the rare La Reine de Saba' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Even were Hough's technique less secure and Hyperion's engineering less realistic, this would be a major addition to the catalogue. As it stands, this recording of the first book of Années is the top choice' (International Record Review)

'Pianist Stephen Hough beautifully captures the requisite sense of Liszt's absorption in his self-created Romantic universe, as well as the heart-tugging emotions of his music … it's an exceptionally fine disc' (The Guardian)

'To play Liszt easily, you need at least three hands, but Hough, so brilliant in his recent Rachmaninov set, gets by magnificently with two … a valuable and highly enjoyable disc' (The Times)

'To be without the Hough version of the complete opera paraphrases after Gounod would be like missing the sweet afterthought, one that only a pianist like Stephen Hough can lure us into and then indulge us' (Pianist)

'Stephen Hough has once again excelled himself … the impression conveyed throughout the main work is one of immense musicianship and subtlety, in which the pianist shapes every phrase to make its point, allowing distillations of shade and nuance, a performance in which the composer is allowed to speak on his own terms without any intervening eccentricities or rhetorical extravagances' (International Piano)

Années de pèlerinage – Suisse
Pastorale  [1'30]
Orage  [4'50]
Vallée d'Obermann  [15'53]
Eglogue  [2'50]

Liszt’s three books of Années de pèlerinage contain some of his most important music and exemplify the fusion of art and nature which was central to the nineteenth-century Romantic movement which the composer epitomized. Book 1, recorded here, reached its final form in 1855 but most of the pieces were written in the 1830s during Liszt’s stay in Switzerland with his mistress Marie d’Agoult. Each piece has an illustrative title and aims to capture the emotion invoked by a particular scene; this was a revolutionary approach to music in its time and allowed Liszt to create a whole new world where piano texture is used purely to create atmosphere.

Music requiring this degree of pianistic sophistication seems perfectly suited to the skills of Stephen Hough, and so it proves, as he captures to perfection the delicate glitter of Au bord d’une source or the grandeur of Vallée d’Obermann.

Unusually, the CD is completed with Liszt’s complete transcriptions from Gounod operas. The three pieces include one virtuoso warhorse – the Faust waltz – and two reflective and lyrical pieces which are almost completely unknown.


Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Among Liszt’s most popular and important works, the Années de pèlerinage include some of the most richly poetic piano music of the nineteenth century. They enshrine many of the central features of Romanticism, capturing the desire to wander, the search for beautiful landscapes and fusion with nature, the fertilization of music with literary and other cultural associations, as well as the journey of discovery, both outward (the physical exploration) and inward (the sense of personal pilgrimage). The models for these pieces are both visual and literary, and Liszt’s music embodies a typically Romantic blend of evocative pictorialism and personalized poetic response.

Like so much of the piano music Liszt published in the 1850s during his years in Weimar – where he settled with his new partner Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, having abandoned his life as a touring virtuoso pianist in 1847 – the Années de pèlerinage are largely based on earlier material, written during Liszt’s time as a travelling concert artist. The first book of Années de pèlerinage (Suisse) is, for the most part, a revision of the Album d’un voyageur (recorded on Hyperion, CDA66601/2), most of which was composed during Liszt’s sojourn in Switzerland with Marie d’Agoult in 1835 and 1836. The second book documents his subsequent travels through Italy. (The third book of Années de pèlerinage, a much later work not based on earlier material and quite different in style, character and influence, is also Italian in subject-matter.)

Liszt’s relationship with Countess Marie d’Agoult, a married woman six years his senior with two young children, began in 1833, and they went to considerable lengths to conceal their liaison from the Parisian social scene in which they were both, despite their very different backgrounds, enthusiastically involved. They spent the second half of 1834 apart, before the tragic death that December of Marie’s eldest daughter, Louise, at the age of six. This catastrophe, the couple’s emotional reunion early in 1835, and especially Marie’s becoming pregnant in March, cemented their decision to elope to Switzerland in June 1835 (their daughter Blandine was born in December). At great personal risk (and sacrifice: Marie abandoned not only a husband and palatial family home but also her younger daughter Claire) and leaving behind them a scandal, they started a new life together. They stayed in Switzerland for sixteen months, and much of the Album d’un voyageur – a large collection split into three parts, not all of which was reworked in the first book of Années de pèlerinage – was written during this period. Of the nine pieces in the Années de pèlerinage – Suisse, two do not originate from the earlier collection (Eglogue was originally written in 1836 but stood independently, while Orage was newly composed in 1855); the remaining seven pieces are all revisions – with varying degrees of refinement, cuts, elaboration and recomposition – from the Album d’un voyageur. These revisions were made between 1848 and 1854, and the new volume was published in 1855.

Chapelle de Guillaume Tell, a homage to the Swiss national hero prefaced with the motto ‘Einer für Alle – Alle für Einen’ (‘One for all – and all for one’), opens anthem-like before imitations of the alphorn build to a storm of octaves and powerful chords. There is a magical sense of arrival in the aftermath of this outburst, when the heroic main idea calmly returns over flowing arpeggios, before a retreat to the solemnity of the opening.

Au lac de Wallenstadt is the first of two water pieces. It is retained virtually unaltered from its earlier version in the Album d’un voyageur, which was written shortly after Liszt and Marie arrived in Switzerland, en route from Basel to Geneva. Marie wrote in her Mémoires: ‘The shores of Lake Wallenstadt detained us for a long time. Franz wrote for me there a melancholy harmony, imitative of the sigh of the waves and the cadence of oars, which I have never been able to hear without weeping.’ Liszt heads the score with lines from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: ‘… thy contrasted lake, / With the wild world I dwelt in, is a thing / Which warns me, with its stillness, to forsake / Earth’s troubled waters for a purer spring.’ The delicate, rocking accompaniment underpins a melody of innocent lyricism.

Pastorale is a charming vignette, its repeated binary structure reflecting the unpretentious simplicity of the music and the country scene it portrays. It acts as an interlude before the second water-study, Au bord d’une source, which in its first version ran on from Au lac de Wallenstadt without a break, both works being in A flat major. The revised version of Au bord d’une source is far more subtle and pianistically elegant, the left hand crossing the right to share the melodic line, freeing the right hand for the sparkling and intricate depiction of the movement of water. Liszt quotes from Schiller: ‘In the whispering coolness begins young nature’s play.’ This is one of the most successful pieces of the set, and according to Humphrey Searle, writing in the 1950s, the only one of these pieces to retain its place in the standard repertoire at a time when Liszt’s music was generally out of favour.

As we have seen, Orage was the only work from the Années de pèlerinage – Suisse to be freshly composed in Weimar. This is a spectacular depiction of an Alpine storm, a torrential octave study revealing many hallmarks of Liszt’s pianistic and melodic style: the opening is strikingly similar to that of Liszt’s Malédiction for piano and orchestra, while the main theme is of a type that occurs in many of the symphonic poems. Again, lines from Byron’s Childe Harold preface the music: ‘But where of ye, O tempests! is the goal? / Are ye like those within the human breast? / Or do ye find, at length, like eagles, some high nest?’ Liszt wrote many representations of nature’s fury, but none that is more focused and compact than this. The finest and most extended piece of the set, Vallée d’Obermann was inspired by Senancour’s French novel Obermann, which is set in Switzerland. The descending left-hand motif that opens the piece undergoes a series of thematic transformations, in the manner of a symphonic poem, being set in a bold range of harmonic and pianistic contexts. Harmonically this piece is extraordinarily adventurous, in places anticipating Wagner (although cast with a different hue in places, the daring harmonies stem from the version in the Album d’un voyageur), and the way Liszt conveys Obermann’s sense of wonder at nature’s impenetrable grandeur is hugely impressive. After a stormy central outburst heralded by misterioso tremolandos, the music melts into a radiant E major, becoming increasingly florid and ecstatic before ending on a note of unresolved emotional ambiguity. Liszt quotes both from Senancour (‘Que veux-je? Que suis-je? Que demander à la nature? …’; ‘What do I want? What am I? What to ask of nature? …’) and once more from Byron’s Childe Harold:

Could I embody and unbosom now
That which is most within me, – could I wreak
My thoughts upon expression, and thus throw
Soul, heart, mind, passions, feelings, strong or weak,
All that I would have sought, and all I seek,
Bear, know, feel, and yet breathe – into one word,
And that one word were Lightning, I would speak;
But as it is, I live and die unheard,
With a most voiceless thought, sheathing it as a sword.

Liszt quotes the very next stanza from Childe Harold to introduce Eglogue (‘The morn is up again, the dewy morn, / With breath all incense, and with cheek all bloom; / Laughing the clouds away with playful scorn, / And living as if earth contain’d no tomb!’). A delicate and fresh-faced pastoral setting, this piece contrasts sharply with the brooding intensity of Vallée d’Obermann. The darker atmosphere returns in Le mal du pays (‘Nostalgia’ or ‘Homesickness’), albeit with a more wistful character, where the opening alphorn calls a melancholy tune whose unharmonized bleakness is twice relieved by the beautifully poignant melody of the Adagio dolente passages. Les cloches de Genève, subtitled Nocturne, is a substantial revision of Les cloches de G***** from the Album d’un voyageur (why Liszt felt the need in the 1830s to suppress the name of Geneva isn’t clear, but in any case he revealed it in this final version); it is dedicated to Liszt’s first daughter Blandine, who was born in the city, and introduced by two lines from Childe Harold: ‘I live not in myself, but I become / Portion of that around me.’ The gentle descending carillon becomes increasingly animated, building to a passionate climax before the collection closes with the distant tolling of bells.

Liszt composed opera paraphrases throughout his creative life, although they underwent a pronounced shift in nature and purpose as he grew older, from the impressive dressing-up of popular tunes with which he dazzled audiences in his youth, through the psychological character-study of some of his finest paraphrases, condensing and juxtaposing the key dramatic scenes of an opera (the ‘reminiscences’ of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, for example), to the more focused attention on single scenes which he favoured in his later years, especially in his treatments of Wagner.

The Gounod paraphrases (there are three opera paraphrases, all of which are presented here, as well as a transcription of the choral Hymne à Sainte Cécile, dating from 1866) are all from Liszt’s maturity. With the exception of the virtuoso treatment of the waltz from Faust these have generally been overlooked. One of the finest of Liszt’s neglected opera paraphrases, Les Adieux – Rêverie sur un motif de Roméo et Juliette, after Gounod’s setting of Shakespeare first produced in 1867 but now largely forgotten, was composed the same year that the opera appeared. It is in fact based on more than one motif from the opera, all concerned with the lovers’ parting (the end of the balcony scene, the morning after the marriage, and the scene at Juliet’s tomb). Liszt interweaves these connected ideas with great skill and invention, creating an atmosphere of reflection and regret, entirely without the ostentatious display of the Faust paraphrase. Gounod’s The Queen of Sheba has disappeared from the repertoire even more emphatically than his Roméo et Juliette, yet Liszt’s Les Sabéennes – Berceuse de l’opéra La Reine de Saba, published in 1865, is another delightfully delicate transcription which deserves to be heard in its own right.

Gounod’s Faust is his only opera to have retained a place on stage, and within two years of its first production in 1859 Liszt had written this witty and ingenious elaboration of the waltz, which also incorporates a lyrical intermezzo based on the Faust–Marguerite love duet ‘Ô nuit d’amour!’ from Act 2. Faust was, of course, a subject close to Liszt’s heart – he composed his own Faust Symphony in 1854 – yet Sacheverell Sitwell observed long ago a curious quality of cynical detachment in this showpiece: ‘Liszt must have seized upon this tune from the most popular opera of the day, determined to make its worldly success his excuse for committing every kind of sacrilege with its body, and yet lifting it, in doing this, on to a higher spiritual plane than it could ever aspire to on its own merits … In this piece he is giving the public their delight and mocking them in that.’ Certainly the pyrotechnical demands are at times disproportionately sophisticated for Gounod’s occasionally banal themes, and with Liszt’s modulations and harmonic twists adding a delicious spice and urbanity to the music, this tremendously effective piece is an example of Liszt’s treatment transcending its origins.

Tim Parry © 2005

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