No 1: Chapelle de Guillaume Tell
No 2: Au lac de Wallenstadt
No 3: Pastorale
No 4: Au bord d'une source
No 5: Orage
No 6: Vallée d'Obermann
No 7: Eglogue
No 8: Le mal du pays (Heimweh)
No 9: Les cloches de Genève – Nocturne
Lines from Byron (Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage) precede Au lac de Wallenstadt (‘At the Wallenstadt Lake’):
… 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.
This delicate little piece is taken over almost unaltered from the earlier version.
Pastorale is a rethinking of the third of the Fleurs mélodiques des Alpes. The central episode is removed, and the springing bass of the main theme is new, whereas the boisterous leaps which originally accompanied the second theme have been much chastened. The tonality has also changed from G major to E major.
‘In säuselnder Kühle / Beginnen die Spiele / Der jungen Natur’ (‘In the whispering coolness begins young nature’s play’) writes Schiller in his poem Der Flüchtling (‘The Fugitive’), which passage is quoted by Liszt at the head of Au bord d’une source (‘By a spring’). In the earlier version, the technical hurdles almost detract from the simplicity of the intended depiction of freshly springing waters; Liszt’s new arrangement of the material, at once more subtle and presenting technical problems more charming than intractable, has rightly made this version one of his best loved works.
Byron’s Childe Harold provided Liszt with another poem to introduce Orage (‘Storm’):
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?
Several commentators have rightly remarked the similarity of the defiant opening to that of the early Malédiction concerto for piano and strings. Although Liszt invented memorable musical representations of many a storm, he was never so relentless and single-minded in his work as in this fine piece, almost a study, in the best sense, and unequalled in its balanced account of grandeur and fury.
Vallée d’Obermann (‘Obermann’s Valley’) is another of Liszt’s finest works, and Liszt himself excused its inclusion in a collection of Swiss impressions by pointing out that the French novel (Senancour’s Obermann) which inspired it was set in Switzerland. The many changes between the two versions of the work (which Liszt also arranged for piano trio in his last years, adding the title Tristia to the final version) are too numerous to detail here: much of the material is similar, if the order of the form is different, but here the added rhetorical gestures pace the work better. The original two-page preface from Senancour is reduced to a dozen lines—‘Que veux-je? Que suis-je? Que demander à la nature? …’ (‘What do I want? What am I? What to ask of nature? …’), and a further nine lines from Childe Harold introduce this powerful piece:
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.
If the flattery of imitation were anything to go by, then Tchaikovsky certainly admired Vallée d’Obermann sufficiently when he appropriated its main theme for Lensky’s aria in Yevgeny Onegin.
Significantly, the very next stanza of Childe Harold introduces 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 the earth contain’d no tomb,— …
A more fresh-faced piece of Liszt would be hard to imagine, and its delicate simplicity makes a perfect foil for the previous piece. (Tchaikovsky echoes this work in his well-known Troïka, Opus 37bis/11.)
Le mal du pays (Heimweh) (‘Nostalgia / homesickness’) is a splendid example of Liszt’s ability to make a work sound like a free improvisation whilst subjecting it to quite tight control. The success of this brooding piece is all the more impressive for the varied provenance of its themes: most of the material is adapted from the second of the Fleurs mélodiques, and a further melody is taken from the Fantaisie romantique. The work is prefaced by a vast quotation from the ‘Troisième fragment’ of Senancour’s Obermann: ‘De l’expression romantique, et du ranz des vaches’ (‘on Romantic expression, and the Swiss pastoral melody employed in the calling of the cows’)—‘Le romanesque séduit les imaginations vives et fleuries; le romantique suffit seul aux âmes profondes, la véritable sensibilité …’ (‘The Romanesque attracts those of lively and florid imagination; the Romantic satisfies only profound souls, real sensitivity …’).
Liszt brings the Swiss book of his Années to a balanced conclusion with Les cloches de Genève—Nocturne (‘The Bells of Geneva’), which is based on the first part only of the much longer Les cloches de G***** of the Album d’un voyageur. For some reason, Liszt discarded the greater part of that marvellous meditation, but, in compensation, he added a second section to the revised work, introducing an inspired and uplifting melody, first quietly and then with full-blooded passion, before taking his leave with the return of the distant bells.
from notes by Leslie Howard © 1996