Années de pèlerinage: Première Année Suisse
The Opera Paraphrases after Charles Gounod (complete) Roméo et Juliette; Faust; La Reine de Saba
Stephen Hough (piano)
Recorded on 18 & 19 January and 21 & 25 May 2003 in Henry Wood Hall, London
Reviewed by: Michael McMillan
Reviewed: October 2005
CD No: HYPERION CDA67424
Duration: 75 minutes
The twenty-six pieces that make up the three books of the “Années de pèlerinage” contain some of Liszt’s finest writing for solo piano. Book I of the collection first appeared as part of the ‘Album d’un voyageur’ and owes much of its inspiration to the natural surroundings the composer experienced during his stay in Switzerland in 1835 and 1836. Liszt later revised much of the Album, added a new piece to the set (Orage), and published Book I of the ‘Years of pilgrimage’ in 1855.
Sharing the less extravagant and more profound compositional aesthetics that characterise the works he newly created during this period, such as Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (1847), Two Polonaises (1851), B minor Sonata (1853), and the Two Ballades (1853), these first nine pieces of ‘Années’ look forward to the Impressionism of Debussy while retaining the kind of pianism that is unmistakably Liszt’s.
“Liszt’s music, unlike that of Mozart, projects the man”, says Alfred Brendel, referring to the duality of Liszt’s half-priestly, half-womanising character, a dichotomy illustrated by ‘Les cloches de Genève’, which ranges from a reflective, nocturnal mood, and gentle sighs in single notes, to agitation and passion. Then, just as suddenly, the ‘Animal’, octave-pen having been in hand, disappears, and Abbé Liszt returns to complete his musical reverie in contemplative pianissimo.
I believe it was Stephen Hough himself who suggested that when playing Liszt, instead of considering the music in its absolute terms, one must rather become Liszt. And those who are familiar with Hough’s previous recordings this composer (one for Hyperion, and one for Virgin Classics) will be aware that he applies his formidable command of the keyboard in such a way as to project more the ‘better’ half of Liszt. This approach is ideally suited to unravelling the poetry of the Années, and from the first chords that introduce ‘Chapelle de Guillaume Tell’, one becomes aware of some masterly footwork, too. that serves to recreate the sounds of alpine horns, waves, church-bells, harps, and countless other effects which fail to register in the hands of lesser pianists.
However, despite some magical playing in those passages that portray the introspective and gentler aspects of, respectively, man and nature, there are occasions where the passion and romantic sweep that Liszt demands (the recitative in ‘Vallée d’Obermann’, or the central section of ‘Les cloches de Genève’) is too rehearsed. It is, perhaps, an aural discrepancy arising when the pianist tries on the other skin of Liszt, rather than actually becoming him.
Hyperion gives us a full disc of music, ending with three paraphrases from Gounod’s operas that Liszt wrote in his mid-fifties. In David Dubal’s opinion, the “Faust” arrangement is “one of the finest waltz paraphrases ever contrived”, yet these remain relatively unknown works. They are fortunate to find an advocate in Hough, who makes them seem more important then they probably are.
In sum this is another imaginatively conceived recital by this artist, one well recorded, with much to admire and enjoy.