Stephen Barber
MusicWeb International
March 2019

Tiberghien is a versatile and poetic pianist: as well as some of the standard classics, he has also recorded Szymanowski, Bartók and Prokofiev. However, this is the first time he has turned his attention to Liszt, and he has made a surprising choice. Instead of the sonata or any of the big barnstorming works, he has chosen to record the third volume of the Années de pèlerinage, composed some twenty years after the first two, and often not played even by pianists who play the first two volumes, and to introduce it by some of the strange pieces from the end of Liszt’s life, pieces in which he seems to anticipate, among others, Bartók, Scriabin and Busoni. (Some of them were not published until many years after Liszt’s death, so there is usually no issue of direct influence.)

These pieces make a complete change from the Liszt of the virtuoso works. They rarely make severe technical demands; instead they explore strange and unusual harmonies, often in the depths of the piano. Their subjects are sometimes religious, sometimes macabre, and there is an undertone of melancholy and mystery about them. We begin with the Bagatelle sans tonalité, a work from the same world as Liszt’s Mephisto pieces—indeed it was originally called Mephisto Waltz no 4, though this title was later used for a different work, also in this recital. The Bagatelle has an abrupt call to arms, followed by a chromatically unstable, fast and undanceable waltz which builds to a climax and then breaks off. The short and simple Wiegenlied (cradle song) seems to have had some private meaning for the composer, because he arranged it not only for a group of four violins but also quoted it in his last symphonic poem, Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (From the cradle to the grave).

The actual Fourth Mephisto waltz was one of the composer’s last works and is unfinished, breaking off on a bare octave. Tiberghien plays it in its published form, whereas Leslie Howard, in volume 1 of his complete Liszt cycle, completes the contrasting middle section from Liszt’s draft, and provides a recapitulation. La lugubre gondola II is one of a group of pieces associated with the death of Wagner, though actually written before that event. Liszt had seen funeral gondolas in Venice passing along the Grand Canal to the San Michele cemetery island. Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort (Sleepless! Question and Answer) is a nocturne based on a poem by one of Liszt’s pupils. It rouses itself to some purpose but ends bleakly. En rêve is also a nocturne, brief, gentle and—unusually for these pieces—cheerful.

The third volume of Années de pèlerinage collects pieces written some years earlier. Liszt had the use of rooms at the Villa d’Este at Tivoli near Rome, the home of Cardinal Hohenlohe, who was a friend. All these pieces were written there, whereas the two earlier volumes had documented Liszt’s travels. In 1865 Liszt had accepted minor orders in the church (roughly equivalent to a lay reader for Anglicans) and religious themes are prominent. The Angelus is a devotion to the Virgin Mary, said three times a day, prompted by the ringing of a bell. Liszt’s piece begins with an evocation of bell sounds before presenting and developing an impressive melody. The first cypress piece was suggested by those in the garden at Tivoli, the second by those at the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome. Cypresses have long been associated with death, and the wood of the cross was thought to have been made of cypress wood. These pieces are both grim and dramatic. Les jeux d’eaux is a complete contrast, an evocation of the extensive scheme of fountains and water features at the Villa d’Este. This is a sparkling and radiant piece, also with a religious connection, as Liszt placed the words from John’s Gospel (4:14) about living water above the main theme. Not surprisingly, this is the best-known work here; its influence on Ravel’s Jeux d’eau is obvious.

The last three pieces return us to the melancholy mood. The title of Sunt lacrymae rerum (there are tears in things) is a line of Virgil (Aeneid I. 462) referring to the dead of the Trojan War. Liszt associated it with the Hungarian War of Independence of 1848-9. The Hungarian mode of the subtitle is the harmonic minor mode with a raised fourth note. The Marche funèbre is for Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, executed by revolutionaries. Sursum corda (Lift up your hearts) takes its title from the Preface to the Canon (consecration prayer) of the Mass. It begins quietly but works up to the largest climax on the disc, notated on four staves, before ending, surprisingly, with massive chords of E major.

To all this strange and sometimes forbidding territory Tiberghien is an expert guide. He is a sensitive and fastidious player who never forces his tone and is discreet with his use of the sustaining pedal. He can also bring out massive climaxes when required—he also plays Brahms. He shapes and moulds the sometimes bald and bleak writing, which is at times in just single notes, and takes us into the heart of the world of late Liszt. There is nothing routine about his playing. This is a most impressive recital.

The recording is exemplary. Tiberghien chose a Yamaha piano and writes a note of appreciation of the instrument and the technicians in the sleeve note. The sound is very clean and responsive to the touch. There is a useful sleeve note in three languages and I cannot think of a better introduction to late Liszt. Very strongly recommended.