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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Légende No.1, St. François d’Assise; La predication aux oiseaux [10:28]
Années de pélerinage; Deuxième année - Italie [51:47]
Francesco Piemontesi (piano)
rec. 2017, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano, Switzerland
Bonus DVD: A film by Roberta Pedrini of Années de pélerinage; Italie [79:49]
ORFEO C944182I CD/DVD [62:15+79:49]

The first instalment of this pilgrimage, in which Piemontesi gave us the first book of the Années de pélerinage, that devoted to Switzerland, was highly admired by two of us on MusicWeb, and this follow up devoted to the second volume, inspired by Italy, is a worthy successor. There is also the first of the Two Legends (the Swiss book had the Second Legend as a filler), and that piece opens the disc. It depicts the tale of St Francis of Assisi preaching to a flock of birds about the glory of God, and making a sign of the cross as they fly off in a flurry of joyous trilling birdsong. The combination of piety and birdsong is worthy of Messiaen, but Liszt got there first, and it is one of his most played and recorded works. Those initial flying demisemiquavers and trills, evoking some avian idyll, are played with great poise by Piemontesi, and the Solenne moment at bar 71, when the sermon begins, is played here ‘not too slowly’, exactly as Liszt told his pupils, but with nobility.

The Italian volume of the Années de pélerinage is concerned not with landscape as in the Swiss year, but with art and literature, with such reference points as Raphael and Michelangelo, and Petrarch and Dante. ‘Sposalizio’, inspired by Raphael’s painting The Marriage of the Virgin, makes a splendid opening. Again Piemontesi seems to have looked into the diary August Göllerich kept of Liszt’s master classes, for he follows the composer’s reported hints on tempo and interpretation closely. The mere two pages of Il penseroso make a disproportionate impact in the sense of distilled contemplation he brings to it, while the jaunty Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa, which usually outstays its welcome despite being by far the shortest item, sounds an innocent and happy piece rather than a frivolous one. The three Petrarch sonnets are of course Liszt transcriptions, but of Liszt’s own songs. The trick is keep them songful, while never giving a sense that we are missing a singer. Liszt’s decorations and embellishments of his original help with that, especially in the splendid second sonnet, which here is given a passionate and powerful reading, while the third achieves the requisite sense of repose especially at its close.  

The final item, entitled ‘Après une lecture du dante - Fantasia quasi sonata’ but usually simply called the Dante Sonata, is really a work apart, being more than twice as long as any other work in the collection, and one of the iconic masterpieces of Romantic piano music. Hence it has disproportionate significance if you are looking for a recording of the Deuxième année. Piemontesi gives a terrific account of this splendid work, from the tritone-infested opening, where his pedalling gives just the right degree of ominous mystery, through the demonic passages of chromatic lamentation, and on to the chorale-like second theme with its precipitato double octaves. The lovely ‘Francesca da Rimini’ episode is lyrical balm after all the infernal struggles, and the advanced harmonies of the coda are sensitively realised in the weighting of the final chords. This Dante Sonata sets the seal on an outstanding disc.

As with the earlier release of the Swiss book, there is a substantial film on DVD included in the package. It is directed by Roberta Pedrini with the focus on the Italian sources of this Deuxième Année de pélerinage, featuring Francesco Piemontesi performing each piece in the book, preceded by a short bit of film concerning its inspiration (Raphael’s painting, Michelangelo’s sculpture, etc.).There is also a discussion with a musicologist about Liszt’s various loves in relation to the Petrarch Sonnets, and each sonnet is read in Italian while a translation appears on screen. The Dante Sonata is introduced very fully by Piemontesi himself. Altogether it is an attractive enough film, and set of filmed performances, with some delightful shots of Lake Como, Milan and Florence. But in this context it acts also as a sort of filmed programme note, especially for the Dante Sonata, whose main features are outlined in detail by the pianist, illustrating each point at the keyboard. It is a useful addition to an already highly recommendable issue.

Roy Westbrook

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