LISZT: THE PILGRIMAGE YEARS • Various performers • EUROARTS 2058868 (DVD: 62:00)
Conveying some sense of Liszt’s long, peripatetic, and variously active life within the confines of feature-length broadcast film presents any documentarian with substantial challenges. Beyond questions of emphasis and weight, the director must make painful choices from a veritable smorgasbord of goals, aspirations, accomplishments, trends, influences, successes, and failures inherent in so rich and productive a life. The number of concepts or thematic areas thatRead more can be portrayed meaningfully in any hour-long documentary is surprisingly small. Unlike various new media/interactive multimedia formats, and very much unlike books, film is not a “fact” medium. Indeed, any attempt to treat it as such, especially if facts and ideas are presented chronologically as they might be in a text, invariably produces a film that is more confusing than communicative and tedious for the viewer. A classic example, released in 2011, is Michael Fuehr’s two-part film Robert Schumann: A Portrait. That documentary’s close adherence to the book Robert Schumann: Eine Lebenschronik in Bildern und Dokumenten by Ernst Burger (also the distinguished iconographer of Chopin and Liszt) resulted in a documentary that, despite its factual accuracy and rich contemporary stills, is stultifying to watch.
Happily, with Liszt: The Pilgrimage Years, the young Italian director Angelo Bozzolini has met these myriad challenges with considerable success. This isn’t Bozzolini’s first foray into musical subjects. Last year, for instance, his documentary Fryderyk Chopin was featured at the International Festival of Audio-Visual Programs in Biarritz, and he has also produced a documentary about Mendelssohn. This new film’s title and packaging suggest that it might be a dramatization of Liszt’s sojourn in Italy with Marie d’Agoult between 1837 and 1839. Fortunately, it is not. Instead, it follows the tried-and-true formula of so many BBC and PBS documentaries: lively narration, stills from contemporary images and publications, historical re-enactments with voice-overs, archival footage of musical performance, and talking heads. And if Liszt’s experiences in Italy and his Italian-inspired compositions receive special attention, the documentary nevertheless covers his 75-year life with reasonable balance and a surprisingly high degree of accuracy. We are given a fair overview of Liszt’s accomplishments as a composer, pianist, conductor, and even as a cleric—no small feat, considering the complexity of the topic.
The historical re-enactments are beautifully shot. Particularly remarkable are the scenes on Lake Como and at the Duomo and Camposanto in Pisa, where we see Liszt (Henry Stefani) scrutinizing what is left of the giant mural Trionfo della Morte to the strains of Totentanz. The voice-overs of David Haughton (reading from Liszt’s correspondence) and Bridget Borgobello (reading from d’Agoult’s memoirs) are effective and well chosen. We might have wished, however, for greater directorial oversight of their readings and of the generally excellent narration of Alex Mariotti. At one point Borgobello speaks of Marie being left alone with her “reveres” rather than her “reveries,” and Mariotti calls Heinrich Heine “Hine.” My major reservation about the film is a rather conspicuous one. Of all the many portrayals of Liszt on screen—including those of Dirk Bogarde, Will Quadflieg, Imre Szinkovits, Roger Daltrey, Ekkehard Schall, Julian Sands, and Georgie Johnson, or those of more ancient vintage by Carlos Thompson, Sviatoslav Richter, Henry Daniell, Stephen Berkassy, or even the uncredited actor in James A. Fitzpatrick’s 1925 short Franz Liszt—surely, Henry Stafni is the hands-down winner of the prize for most absurdly preposterous wig. In the segments depicting the young Liszt, things are bad enough. But when we see him in later years, presumably in the organ loft of the Madonna del Rosario on the Montemario or perhaps at Santa Francesca Romana, he looks, well, distressingly wigged out. Too much prayer and fasting, perhaps.
Despite what appears to be Liszt’s bad-hair life, there is plenty to enjoy in the film. Interspersed archival performance footage includes Earl Wild playing Gnomenreigen, György Cziffra in his signature Grand gallop chromatique, and Evgeny Kissin performing the Sonata, along with a clip (which could have used some color correction) of Luciano Pavarotti singing a disarmingly direct Benedetto sia’l giorno.
Among the talking heads providing requisite expert testimony are pianists Charles Rosen, Leslie Howard (speaking fluent Italian throughout), Evgeny Kissin, and Roberto Prosseda (who shares production and writing credits for the film with Bozzolini). All but Kissin are seated at a piano for their interviews, and periodically illustrate their points at the keyboard. William Grant Naboré, a native of Roanoke who now directs the International Piano Academy at Lake Como, speaks and is shown coaching a student in the B-Minor Sonata. The British-American conductor Antonio Pappano is also featured. Pappano has yet to record any of Liszt’s orchestral works, but those familiar with his piano accompaniments for Barbara Bonney’s wonderful Liszt-Schumann CD will know him as a sympathetic and sensitive Liszt interpreter. Interviews with two Italian critics, Piero Rattalino and Andrea Bedetti, are shown. Also included is an interview with the rector of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, Monsignor Valentino Miserachs Grau. With the breathtaking assurance of an expert in such matters, Grau explains to us Liszt’s soul.
The most interesting and eloquent of these experts are Pappano and Rosen. Pappano articulates Liszt’s contributions to the technique of conducting in a way easily understandable to the layman. He also has fascinating things to say about the intrinsic narrative qualities of Liszt’s compositional style. Rosen—whose connection to Liszt, after all, is the closest of anyone in the film through his teacher, the Liszt pupil Mortiz Rosenthal—speaks incisively about Liszt’s ability to take the smallest of musical elements and explode it into fantastically varied expressive purposes. The thoughtful insights of these two musicians alone are worth the price of the film.
Clearly with so much included, a great deal had to be omitted. In addition to the ample time afforded Liszt’s relationship with Marie d’Agoult, we are also given a sense of the important role played by Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein in the composer’s life. Other relationships, with Agnes Street-Klindworth or Olga von Meyedorff, for instance, or those with his children, or with his many pupils, presumably had to be omitted as too complicating to the narrative. A good bit of attention is devoted to the fiasco surrounding the premiere of Peter Cornelius’s Barber of Baghdad, giving context to Liszt’s departure from Weimar. Yet his vastly more significant artistic relationships with Chopin, Berlioz, and Wagner, not to mention his championship of their works, are scarcely alluded to. We are told that Liszt studied in Vienna with Salieri and Czerny, but his tutelage under Reicha and Paër in Paris escapes notice, as does his artistic and intellectual development in that epicenter of Romanticism. If Liszt’s origins in Hungary are well established, we miss any sense of his fruitful activity there in adulthood and later life. One of the Italian critics interviewed even declares Liszt more German than Hungarian. When will that one ever be put to rest?
But this is an hour-long documentary, not a miniseries, and its manifold strengths are more than praiseworthy. I think most viewers will find Liszt: The Pilgrimage Years both entertaining and informative. It is a pleasure to encounter a portrayal of this long, complicated, and prolific life handled with sensitivity and intelligence.
FANFARE: Patrick Rucker
The arrival of this DVD was propitious indeed, because only a day earlier, I had heard a pulse-pounding recital by the Seattle-based pianist Craig Sheppard of Books One (
Suisse) and Two (
Italie) of Liszt’s
Les Années de Pèlerinage (
The Years of Pilgrimage). Here was a film whose
raison d’être was these very works.
Directed and co-produced by Angelo Bozzolini,
Liszt: The Pilgrimage Years is a sort of hybrid. It is partly a film about Liszt’s life, with actors silently strolling locations where the composer and his inamorata Marie d’Agoult visited. Narrator Alex Mariotti reads from Liszt’s and Marie’s writings and also from a rather highly perfumed script.
The film also is partly a documentary featuring eminent musicians talking about Liszt’s works – not only the
Années de Pèlerinage but also other piano and symphonic works - with particular emphasis on the big B Minor Sonata. Here is the most interesting material in the film: watching Charles Rosen, who talks about music as compellingly as he plays it, discuss fine points of Liszt’s
Années as he illustrates from the keyboard. Evgeny Kissin and Leslie Howard also offer intriguing pianist-eye’s views of the particular challenges of the piano works. Howard is particularly interesting on the subject of Liszt’s successive revisions of what became the
Transcendental Études. This reviewer kept wishing for more of the brilliant pianists playing and talking, and less voice-over narration.
The “years of pilgrimage” were launched by the scandal of Liszt’s elopement with Marie, Comtesse d’Agoult, with whom he went on to have three illegitimate children. One of these children, Cosima, was to follow in her mother’s scandalous footsteps in dalliance and motherhood with Richard Wagner, whom she later married. The film presents us with dreamy, evocative scenes of Liszt and Marie riding in a carriage pulled by two white horses, strolling down the vast lawns of a villa toward Lago di Como, and wafting romantically across the lake in a graceful boat. Somehow we don’t see any scenes with those three little children born within a four-year span; there’s no wailing or nappies or grubby fingers, which may have been just the sort of thing that caused the disintegration of the couple’s romance after the birth of their third child.
The beautiful locations, however - they also include sites in Milan, Pisa, San Rossore, and Rome, though unfortunately the Swiss locations are neglected - are not merely window dressing. They do shed light on the visual effects Liszt was recreating in his music, with
Les Années de Pèlerinage providing an aural travelogue of the composer’s journeys.
The narration gives a good overview of Liszt’s highly eventful life, from his piano debut in Paris at the tender age of 12 through the public wave of adulation that Heine dubbed “Lisztomania”, past a succession of passionate love affairs, and on to the final rise of his Catholicism in the taking of minor clerical orders late in life. Kissin has some priceless observations on this late triumph of faith, after Liszt’s succession of flagrant love affairs.
In sum: Enjoyable fare, especially for Liszt fans, and an entertaining commemoration of the bicentennial of Liszt’s birth.
-- Melinda Bargreen, MusicWeb International
A film by Angelo Bozzolini
Narrator – Alex Mariotti
Franz Liszt – David Haughton
Marie D’Agoult – Bridget Borgobello
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, German, French
Booklet notes: English, German, French
Running time: 62 mins
No. of DVDs: 1 Read less
Average Customer Review: ( 3 Customer Reviews )
Could have been much betterJuly 16, 2013By William Craig (Broomfield, CO)See All My Reviews"All in all, this is a rather disappointing film. In the 1830s Franz Liszt initiated a passionate affair with Marie d'Agoult, a married woman, who eventually bore him three children. During the first flame of their romance they traveled extensively, exploring together the beauties of nature in Switzerland and the beauties of art and literature in Italy. The most notable result was two wonderful suites for piano, the "Années de pèlérinage" (Years of Pilgrimage), Books I and II. The title of the film implies that it is a study of this fascinating period in Liszt's life, but it is not. The Liszt/d'Agoult affair is discussed in some detail, though it emphasizes only the Italian segment of their "pilgrimage"; the Swiss segment is scarcely mentioned. On the upside, there are some interesting excerpts from letters, diaries, and memoirs; on the downside, we see much pantomime by two actors who purport to represent the lovers, and who bear no resemblance to either. The rest of the film consists of a superficial overview of Liszt's entire career, with several Italian critics and scholars offering commentary that is mostly obvious and sometimes inaccurate. There are some more perceptive and interesting comments by musicians, notably Charles Rosen, Leslie Howard (oddly, speaking Italian), and Antonio Pappano (speaking perfect English). The music heard is entirely brief excerpts. So the film is not entirely bad, but it could have been much better if, as the title suggests, it had concentrated on Franz and Marie's complicated relationship and/or the marvelous music that came out of it. Perhaps worth seeing once."Report Abuse
Liszt in ItalyJanuary 30, 2013By Brien Chomica (Winnipeg, MB)See All My Reviews"Italy was not only a major source of inspiration for Liszt, but home for a third of each year for his last 25 years or so. Usually associated with Wagner and the Bayreuth scheme, this wonderful documentary highlights the importance of Italian culture to Liszt. There are many insightful comments from musicians and academics. It is so invigorating to see Liszt in the sunshine of Italy, and to see him so thoughtfully and sincerely appreciated there. -- Of course it is part of the bicentennial celebrations of Liszt's birthday (the year 2011) and this is yet another aspect of the great Composer and Champion of Artistic Adventure in which we revel!"Report Abuse
HO-HUMMarch 30, 2012By G. TRAYWICK (OKATIE, SC)See All My Reviews"a DISAPPOINTING ATTEMPT AT lISZT'S EARLY YEARS. ONLY STILL SHOTS OF BUILDING, STREETS, ETC. AND COMMENTS SUGGESTING SOMEONE READING FROM A PRESCRIBED SCRIPT. THE INFO PRESENTED COULD EASILY AND MORE INFORMATIVELY BE READ BY ANYONE WITH ACCRESS TO A LIBRARY OR COMPUTER. I DON'T OBJEDT TO PAYING FOR A YOUTH BIO BUT THIS WAS A SERRIOUS VACUUM ON THE LIFE OF ONE OF AN PERHAPS THE GREATEST PIANOIST OF HIS OR ANY AGE. AND I WAS DISAPPOINTED IN THE ABSENCE OF EXERPTS FROM HIS EARLY WORKS. NOT RECOMMENDED FOR THE INQUIITIVE MIND. G. TRAYWICK "Report Abuse