The Tre sonetti di Petrarca
were the direct result of Liszt’s sojourn in Italy during 1838–9; we learn that he and Marie d’Agoult read Petrarch and Dante together. The origins of the poetry are legendary: on Good Friday, 6 April, 1327, the great fourteenth-century poet Petrarch saw a woman named Laura in the church of Sainte-Claire d’Avignon, and his passion for her is celebrated in the 366 poems of his Rime sparse
(Scattered rhymes, later known as Il Canzoniere
/ The Songbook). The songs—arias in all but name—exist in both a pre-Weimar version for tenor and a later revision for mezzo-soprano or baritone; we hear the virtuosic first version on this disc. The first sonnet, ‘Pace non trovo’, is packed with Petrarch’s characteristic oxymorons, antitheses, and dichotomies (staring without eyes, crying without voice, burning and freezing alike) that bespeak the paradoxes of love. For such imagery, Liszt begins with an agitated succession of his most advanced harmonies followed by extreme contrasts between dramatic-operatic outbursts and ecstatic lyricism, twice bidding the tenor reach for the D flat above high C. In ‘Benedetto sia ’l giorno’, Petrarch calls for multiple blessings on his first sight of Laura, his love for her, and his own thoughts and verses about her. Liszt moves from key to key, benediction to benediction, in his trademark restless, innovative way. ‘I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi’ tells of heavenly angels on earth and earth-shattering beauty in the person of Laura, whose harmonious being fills the air with sweetness. This celestial song, with its breathtaking harmonic shift just before the invocation of ‘Love! wisdom! valour, pity and grief’, ends quietly and reverently.
from notes by Susan Youens © 2010