Notes and Editorial Reviews
Années de pèlerinage: Première année, Suisse. Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este
Tomas Dratva (pn)
OEHMS 786 (59:16)
The subtitle of this disc reads, “Played on Richard Wagner’s Steinway grand piano (1876) in Bayreuth.” Normally, claims like that, on a disc by a pianist of whom I had not heard and on a relatively unfamiliar label, send up a red flag. Why tout a celebrity instrument? In this case, I am happy to report, my reservations were completely unfounded. First
and foremost, the Basel-based Tomas Dratva is an extraordinarily gifted pianist of rare intelligence and sensitivity. He has, in fact, several recordings to his credit (on the Cascavelle and Jecklin labels, in addition to Oehms), including several with violinist Jean-Christophe Gawrysiak and cellist Dieter Hilpert, his colleagues in the Trio Animae. Dratva has played a good deal of modern music, and has edited and recorded a number of works by the late Hungarian-Swiss composer János Tamás. He is also a musician with historical interests and has sought out and recorded piano concertos by Leopold Koželuch, the Bohemian-born Viennese composer and publisher. As Dratva relates in his own lucid and informative notes, preparations for this recording took him to St. Petersburg, where he consulted Liszt’s manuscript of the Swiss
, now housed in the Russian National Library.
Still, the choice of the1876 Wagner Steinway seems a curious one, especially for the Swiss
. After all, this work, in its earliest form as the
Album d’un voyageur
, dates from the 1830s, and was put into definitive shape not later than 1855. Given the speed of the piano’s evolutionary course during the mid 19th century, using an instrument that postdates the finished composition by some 21 years misses the mark, if some sort of contemporaneousness were the goal. Though Dratva doesn’t say so in his notes, I think the deciding factor must have been the virtues of this particular instrument itself. It is, without doubt, one gorgeous piano. Certainly the Steinways were proud of it, since it was chosen by William and Theodore as a gift for Wagner on the opening of the Bayreuth Festival. (And for the record, since our European brethren seem so resistant to the notion: this is an
Steinway. The firm was established in New York in 1853; the Hamburg factory wasn’t opened until 1880!) In any case, performances of Liszt’s music on 19th-century pianos have an added dimension of interest that modern instruments simply don’t, and Dratva exploits this piano’s special beauties wonderfully.
But apart from the magnificent instrument, superbly played, these interpretations themselves are striking artistic realizations, both in the microcosm of each individual piece and in the overarching cohesion and continuity of the whole. The more rapid decay of the string vibrations in instruments of this vintage lends a special clarity to the solemn bass sonorities of
Chapelle de Guillaume Tell. Au Lac de Wallenstadt
are so vivid that they could be delicate watercolors of the Alpine landscape, slopes of green grass dotted with tiny flowers in an atmosphere of bracing, pristine air. The play of light on moving water is all but palpable in
Au Borde d’une source
, enhanced by Dratva’s unerring sense of discrete rubato. His understanding of the resources of this antique piano is nowhere better demonstrated than in
, played here in one of the more musical performances one may hope to hear. The barrage of octaves evoking an Alpine storm is perfectly contoured and shaped to achieve the tempestuously poetic effect and never degenerates into noise.
Le Mal du pays
, that potently concentrated gem of the set, in which Liszt runs a gamut of disparate emotional realms during the course of two distilled pages, is here offered in all its variety and profundity. Finally, in
Les Cloches de Genève
, Dratva portrays the bells in the distance, first heard perhaps through the fog of evening, before their chiming escalates into an ecstatic peroration that brings the cycle to a close.
The disc is rounded out by the most famous piece of the third
Année de pèlerinage, Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este
, a nice touch since, with
Au Borde d’une source
, both of Liszt’s most important and beautiful water pieces are thus represented.
Those who have visited the Villa Wahnfried, Wagner’s home in Bayreuth, will know that the huge central room, in which the Steinway stands today, could present acoustic problems for a piano recording. Happily, these have been surmounted, and the recorded sound leaves little to be desired.
Over the past year, there have been several excellent new recordings of the Swiss Year, including those of Libor Novacek (Landor 290) and André Laplante (Analekta 9980), not to mention the magnificent complete
Années de pèlerinage
of Louis Lortie (Chandos 10622). Dratva’s sensitive and sympathetic performance may take a place alongside these, and without apology. This disc is a genuine surprise and a welcome addition to the finer performances released during Liszt’s bicentennial.
FANFARE: Patrick Rucker
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