Notes and Editorial Reviews
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses:
Andante lagrimoso; Funérailles.
La lugubre Gondola
Saint-François d’Assise, La Prédication aux oiseaux. Saint- François de Paule marchant sur les flots. Wiegenlied
Claire Chevallier (pn)
LA DOLCE VOLTA 02 (72:08)
evolution of the piano, it has been said, from the late 18th century and into the 19th, resembled the astonishing technological development of the computer. Overstatement though that may be, even when adjusted for pre-20th-century rates of change, it contains a grain of truth. Beginning with the piano’s first golden age—initiated by late 18th-century English and Viennese makers—through Érard’s revolutionary 1822 double-escapement action, and culminating in post-Civil War America, where the Chickerings in Boston and the Steinways in New York put the final stamp on what is essentially the grand piano we know today, the instrument’s development was rapid indeed. The piano music of Liszt, more than that of any other composer, encompasses this extraordinary evolution. As a child in provincial Hungary, he grew up playing the older, delicate Viennese instruments. As a pupil of Czerny in Vienna in 1821, he became familiar with the pianos of the foremost local makers of the day, Graf and Streicher. When Liszt and his father arrived in Paris in 1823, their first call was on the Érard family, initiating a lifelong friendship. In later life, he befriended and encouraged many piano makers—Boisselot, Bösendorfer, and Bechstein, to name but three—and was the happy recipient of the latest American pianos, sent as gifts from both Chickering and Steinway.
Given that Liszt’s vast oeuvre naturally reflects the instruments he constantly played, it is surprising that so few recordings issued during last year’s bicentennial used historical pianos. Back in 2008, the British pianist Daniel Grimwood recorded the three books of the
on an 1851 London Érard. Among the few historical instrument releases during the Liszt Year, Tomas Dratva’s of the Swiss
(on Wagner’s 1876 Steinway in Bayreuth) and Michele Campanella’s of a group of late works (on Liszt’s 1860 Bechstein, now in Siena) are noteworthy. All the more welcome then is this new release by the gifted French pianist Claire Chevallier (now resident in Brussels, where she teaches at the conservatory), who plays an 1876 Paris Érard.
The curtain-raiser for her intelligent program is the poignant
Its gentle pace and straightforward textures showcase the instrument perfectly, allowing the ear to adjust to the special richness of the Érard’s sonorities and relatively quick decay. However, it is in the more orchestrally conceived pieces—the First
and the two St. Francis
(all three of which exist in orchestral versions), as well as
that the extraordinary qualities of the piano are heard to most striking advantage. One factor is the individual character of the various registers, which, even in a piano of this late vintage, has not yet entirely disappeared. Another is the rapid decay of each note, allowing even densely textured, high-speed passages to speak with extraordinary harmonic clarity; the same passages on a modern instrument can sound thick when taken at tempo. Moreover, the Érard’s sustaining pedal can be used to create an ethereal aura without obscuring harmonies, as it would inevitably on a modern instrument with its higher string tension and thickly felted hammers. All this to say that Chevallier knew precisely what she was doing in following the
in a performance so robust and vivid, so drenched in kaleidoscopic colors that I don’t know of an orchestral performance to equal it. Her imaginative conception and resourceful execution create an overall effect nothing short of magic. If, like me, you’re a listener who has secretly yearned for a shelving of the
for a good 20 years, so that it might be pulled down again and heard with fresh ears, this performance is likely to change your mind.
In the second
I am not entirely persuaded by Chevallier’s shaping of the melodic contours, which, in several instances, strikes me as rather overly aggressive. Nonetheless, her concept is fully developed and undoubtedly original. On the other hand, the two St. Francis
St. Francis of Assisi’s Sermon to the Birds
, for all its delicacy, is a veritable riot of color.
St. Francis of Paola Walking on the Waves
is elemental, suggesting a crossing of the Straits of Messina that must have been as much a test of the Saint’s own faith as it was an inspiration to his followers. These performances are in a class all their own, quite unlike those of any other pianist (or conductor) who comes to mind. They reveal a perfectly proportioned diptych, each economical brushstroke masterfully applied, conveying an air of the most devout piety. No less affecting is
, Liszt’s commemoration of October 1849 when, following defeat by Russia and Austria, 13 high-ranking Hungarian officers were hanged at Arad following their surrender. Chevallier’s sensitive realization of this thrice-familiar score vividly conjures an outpouring of national grief. The tolling bells of the introduction are harrowing, and the funeral march that follows evokes public mourning on a vast scale. Throughout the 14 minutes of this almost cinematic reading, Chevallier’s pacing and contrasts are so apt that no hint of melodrama compromises the work’s tragic dignity. Then, in a sudden shift of focus, Liszt’s delicate
(material expanded and augmented in the first movement of the last symphonic poem,
From the Cradle to the Grave
) provides a pensive farewell to this beautifully conceived and executed program.
Listeners who have savored Chevallier’s Ravel (a brilliant Concerto for the Left Hand with Anima Eterna on Zig-Zag 60901) or her delicious collaboration with Jos van Immerseel in Rachmaninoff’s works for two pianos and piano duet (Zig-Zag 61105) won’t need much persuasion to sample her Liszt. Everyone else can check out her website, which includes clips from the new Liszt disc, to see what musical and pianistic pleasures await.
FANFARE: Patrick Rucker
Works on This Recording
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