Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage – Suzana Bartal (Naïve)

Liszt - Années De Pèlerinage
5 of 5 stars

Années de pèlerinage (complete)

Suzana Bartal (piano)
Recorded 15-17 & 20-23 May 2019 at Prieuré de Chirens, France

Reviewed by: Ates Orga

Reviewed: November 2020
CD No: NAIVE 7082 (3 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 49 minutes



“You [in Geneva] are in the best possible position to write great things: take advantage of the fact. Travel around Switzerland and Italy on foot, that is the only way to see and understand those beautiful landscapes” – Berlioz, 1836. “Having in recent times travelled in many new countries, through different landscapes and places consecrated by history and poetry, having felt that the varied phenomena of nature, the processes taking place in nature, did not pass before my eyes as empty images but produced deep emotions in my soul, and that between us a vague but immediate relationship had established itself, an undefined but real rapport, an inexplicable but irrefutable communication – I have tried to present in music some of my strongest sensations and my most lively impressions” – Liszt, 1841. 

Traversing vista, literature, sculpture, painting, the mystical, twenty-six tableaux comprise the three ‘years’ or suites making up Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage. The material of the first and second volumes (Switzerland, Italy), published in 1855 and 1858, largely sourced revisions major/minor of music written from the mid-1830s onwards – the Marie d’Agoult wanderlust years – a quantity of the first book originating in Part I, “Impressions et poésies”, of the Album d’un Voyageur issued in Paris (Bibliographie de la France, 21 August 1841). The Petrarch trilogy of the second volume drew on songs/transcriptions from circa 1838-39. The Second Year Supplement (1859, based on withdrawn elaborations of Venetian and Neapolitan airs drafted in 1840) appeared in 1861. Completed somewhat later, between 1867 and 1877, the third volume (untitled but predominantly Latin referenced) appeared in 1883. The earlier numbers array some of the epochal landmarks, ardent and virtuosic, of Romantic piano repertory – “intensely passionate, essentially young man’s music”. The later ones traverse more introspective plains, the black-cassocked Abbé journeying between Rome and God, Budapest and bloodlines, and the Weimar of New German aesthetic – “the product of a fundamentally solitary person” (Leslie Howard).

Spanning more than two-and-three-quarter hours of music, the scale and interweavings, the confessional strata, of Liszt’s imagination, planning and inventive resource, his expanse of canvas and tone-painting – from cameo to transcription, etude to fantasy, symphonische dichtung to theatre, supplication to valediction to lamentation – invite endless intricacies of response, tensioning and interaction. In a century of Romanticism from Chopin, Schumann and Alkan to Albéniz, Granados and Medtner, there’s little to equal the eclecticism and experience. Music born of Liszt in ascendance, countesses and princesses courting his company and massaging his ego – Marie d’Agoult foremost, mother of his children. Temptresses of the boudoir on the one hand, companions of the mind on the other, nourishing him intellectually and philosophically. Music of a man into his sixties, prayerbook and pulpit for solace.

Chronicling the voyage, reminding ourselves again of movements greater and lesser, intimate and public, tells something of the complex, ruminative world that was Liszt’s natural habitat, touring days as a cloaked-and-gloved showman notwithstanding. 

First Year: Switzerland I Chapelle de Guillaume Tell, William Tell’s Chapel: “All for one – one for all” (Schiller). II Au lac de Wallenstadt, At Lake Wallenstadt: “Thy contrasted lake/With the wild world I dwell in is a thing/Which warns me, with its stillness, to forsake/Earth’s troubled waters for a purer spring” (Byron). III Pastorale, abridged from Album d’un Voyageur, Part II, “Fleurs mélodiques des Alpes”, No.3, published 1840. IV Au bord d’une source, Beside a Spring: “In the whispering coolness begins young nature’s play” (Schiller). V 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?” (Byron). VI Vallée d’Obermann, Obermann’s Valley: “Soul-heart-mind-passions-feelings-strong or weak/All that I would have sought, and all I seek … I live and die unheard” (Byron); “What do I want? Who am I? What to ask of nature?” (de Senancour). VII Églogue: “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 contained no tomb!” (Byron). VIII Le mal du pays, Nostalgia, Homesickness, adapted principally from “Fleurs mélodiques des Alpes”, No.2: “The Romanesque attracts those of lively and florid imagination; the Romantic satisfies only profound souls, real sensitivity …’ (de Senancour). IX Les cloches de Genève, Nocturne, The Bells of Geneva: “I live not in myself, but I become/Portion of that around me” (Byron). 

Second Year: Italy I Sposalizio (Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin, the betrothal of Our Lady and St Joseph). II Il penseroso (Michelangelo’s The Thinker): “Sleep, nay, being made of rock,/makes me happy whilst harm and shame endure./It is a great adventure neither to see nor to hear./However, disturb me not, pray—lower your voice!”. III Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa (Giovanni Bononcini’s Vado ben spesso cangiando loco): “Often I change my place of being,/but I shall never change my feelings;/the fire of my love will remain the same,/and so will I myself” (anon). IV Sonetto 47 del Petrarca, Pace non trovo, e non ho da far Guerra: “I find no peace, yet am not armed for war;/I hope and yet I fear; I freeze, I burn;/On earth I lie, above the heavens I soar;/I would embrace the world, yet all things spurn” (Canzone CXXXIV). V Sonetto 104 del Petrarca, Benedetto sia ’l giorno e ’l mese e l’ anno: “Blest be the year, the month, the hour, the day,/The season and the time, and point of space,/And blest the beauteous country and the place/Where first of two bright eyes I felt the sway” (Canzone LXI). VI Sonetto 123 del Petrarca, I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi: “On earth reveal’d the beauties of the skies,/Angelic features, it was mine to hail;/Features, which wake my mingled joy and wail,/While all besides like dreams or shadows flies” (Canzone CLVI). VII Après une lecture de [du] Dante: Fantasia Quasi Sonata, After reading Dante (Victor Hugo). Sketched in 1839 (Paralipomènes à la Divina Commedia – Fantaisie symphonique), revised 1849. 

Supplement: Venezia e Napoli. I Gondoliera (Gondolier’s Song)/La Biondina in Gondoletta – Canzone di Cavaliere Peruchini: “The blonde girl in the little gondola” (Lamberti). II Canzone/Nessùn maggior dolore – Canzone del Gondoliere: “There is no greater sorrow than to recall a time of happiness in misery” (Rossini, Otello Act III, quoting Dante). III Tarantella [da Guillaume Louis Cottrau]: Presto e canzone napolitana.

Third Year I Angélus! Prière aux anges gardiens Angelus! Prayer to the Guardian Angels. II Aux cyprès de la Villa d’Este, By the Cypresses at the Villa d’Este [a]: Thrénodie . III Aux cyprès de la Villa d’Este [b]: Thrénodie. IV Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este, The Fountains of the Villa d’Este: “But the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up into eternal life” (Gospel according to John). V Sunt lacrymae rerum/En mode hongrois [Thrénodie hongroise] There are tears in the affairs of this life/In Hungarian Style [1st edition]): “There are tears for suffering and men’s hearts are touched by what man has to bear” (Virgil [David West’s 1990 response to a thorny translation issue]). VI Marche funèbre, En mémoire de Maximilian I, Empereur du Mexique † 19 June 1867, Funeral March, In memory of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico [Fernando Maximiliano José María de Habsburgo-Lorena]: “To have wished for great things is an accomplishment in itself” (Propertius). VII Sursum corda, Lift Up Your Hearts.

Though, individually, multiple readings survive – the earliest ‘expression’ piano rolls and pre-electric acoustics dating to more than a century ago – less than twenty integral versions, beginning with the latter end of the LP era, can be accounted for. In December 1977 I welcomed Lazar Berman’s Munich-recorded DG set as the first to become available in Britain. Path-breaking, tone-defining, emphatic in the Russian way – if not quite the first to be taped. In America Jerome Rose (Vox) pipped him to the post (1973); likewise, privately, Gunnar Johansen in his grail-seeking Blue Mounds Wisconsin project from sometime in the sixties (Artist Direct, near impossible to find outside a few libraries). 

Narration, verse, visual imagery, rhetoric, high thespian ground, transcendentalism, spiritual incline, love in all its guises, responding to/creating within an atmosphere, is the challenge and assuagement, the gift, of this cycle. Suzana Bartal lives her life through Liszt’s pages, a part, she claims, of her musical DNA. Blazing honesty, panoramic landscaping. No frills, no interest in bettering the competition, no speed records. Just a pianist. A dark-hued, tenor-voiced instrument. An acoustic born of stone and incense, space and contemplation. 

From Timișoara in Romania, Bartal, Franco-Hungarian, studied in Paris and Lyon, gaining her performance doctorate from Yale under the Hungarian-born Peter Frankl (too long missing from British shores). She won the New York Concert Artists Concerto Competition in 2013. Her Années de pèlerinage isn’t just about splendid technique. It’s about reverie and quest, colour and vocalisation, sound and silence. In best Lisztian manner, she rises to climaxes and prolongs cadences, she develops the sonority and power of her Steinway D from deep recesses. Growling basses, grand orgue chords, cantabile arias, mountain storms, purling rainbows of water and sunlight, lapping waters, fountains of harmony, octaves and ornaments to halt a Roman legion and woo the spirit. One way or another, it’s all here. Petrarch sings, Dante releases the infernal, dancers take flight. Bells echo. Voices urge forwards, pulses quicken, peaks linger, clasped in candleflame. Trills and arpeggiations have shape and meaning, grace notes speak, pedalling is as rich or secco as contexts demand. The central pages of the Tarantella float glowingly, like rays of evening light shimmering marble halls. Opening the throttle, Orage defies and terrifies. Vallée d’Obermann deals in Brunel-ian spans. The Third Year, damask-touched, long-lined, is epically penetrating and introspective. A glorious summation … possibly the finest single achievement of the set. 

Bartal is the complete hero-poet-bard, a richly endowed, sensually responsive Lisztian dreaming and dramatic. Time and again she halts us in our tracks, inviting us to re-think old attitudes, to re-focus familiar horizons. Nothing is taken for granted. In her producer/engineer/editor, Cécile Lenoir, she has the perfect companion – a “twin sister” – to share the journey. One who understands art, theatre, style, the electricity of performance, the urgency of the moment. One who recognises that having a great pianist, a thoroughbred piano and legendary music doesn’t necessarily guarantee a great story. A special resonance, an inspirational atmosphere is needed too. The Priory at Chiren, founded by the Benedictines in the eleventh-century, provides that. A rough-hewn place soaked in history and associations off the old road from Bourg-en-Bresse to Grenoble in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes – eighty miles south of Geneva. It’s a region of distinctive air and natural beauty, an environment where no musician, no creative, could be indifferent. Suzana Bartal is nothing if not impassioned flesh and blood. In such surroundings, you feel, she’s poured out all her heart and soul, every muscle, tendon and nerve end in accord, springtime and life on the wing. 

Poèmes, élégies, victoires. Elation, memories, tears. Listening sends shivers.

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