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Liszt: Les Annees De Pelerinage, Books 1 And 2

Release Date: 04/24/2012 
Label:  Roméo Records   Catalog #: 7289   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Franz Liszt
Performer:  Craig Sheppard
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 34 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

LISZT Années de pèlerinage: Books 1, 2 Craig Sheppard (pn) ROMÉO 7289-90 (2 CDs: 94:01) Live: Seattle 10/20–21/2011

New recordings of Liszt’s complete Années de pèlerinage —all three books—don’t come along too often; the last I’m aware of was by Louis Lortie, released in March 2011 and which Chandos managed to fit onto two CDs totaling more than 80 minutes each. That version, which Patrick Read more Rucker called “the finest recording of the work to date” in Fanfare 34:6, may well be the touchstone by which all newcomers are judged.

Craig Sheppard’s Roméo Records set spreads Books 1 and 2—“Suisse” and “Italie”—over two discs, totaling only 14 minutes more than just one of Lortie’s Chandos discs. To complicate further the matter of dollars per minutes of music, as of mid-April 2012, Amazon is selling Sheppard’s two-book Années de pèlerinage set for $23.65 vs. Lortie’s three-book complete Années de pèlerinage set for $17.77. Somewhere in this equation is the madness of the March Hare.

Of course, those who are serious about music seldom measure the value of recordings by equating CD playing time to cost of the disc, but when two-thirds of a new Années de pèlerinage debuts in a head-to-head contest with a complete Années de pèlerinage , judged by at least one critic to be the “finest to date,” it seems to me that cost becomes a valid consideration.

Craig Sheppard and I go back a ways. I interviewed him for Fanfare 29: 1 in connection with a release of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas and, ever since then, I’ve consistently judged that cycle to be one of the top contenders. I’ve also been highly impressed by a number of Bach CDs he has made, but find myself somewhat less receptive to his Schubert. Liszt is not a composer I would necessarily have associated with Sheppard, though I notice that he has tackled a couple of the composer’s Verdi paraphrases in a wide-ranging EMI collection featuring a number of other pianists.

Liszt worked on the nine pieces that ended up in the “Suisse” volume of Années de pèlerinage between 1848 and 1854, but seven of the nine numbers are actually revised versions of pieces he composed much earlier (1835–36) for his Album d’un voyageur cycle. Only Nos. 5 and 7 of the “Suisse” set—“Orage” and “Églogue”—were newly composed.

The seven numbers that make up “Italie,” the second year of pilgrimage, also contain pieces not originally written as part of the cycle. Specifically, Nos. 4–6, the so-called “Petrarch Sonnets,” were composed separately and then revised for inclusion in the collection when it was published in 1858. Also, a year later, Liszt composed a supplement to Book 2, titled Venezia e Napoli , which contained three additional numbers, “Gondoliera,” “Canzone,” and “Tarantella.” Sheppard does not include the supplement in his two-disc set; Lortie does, tacking it onto the end as an appendix after the third year. So not only does Lortie give us all three books on two discs, but his Book 2 is even more complete than Sheppard’s for including the Venezia e Napoli addendum.

In an A/B comparison, Sheppard and Lortie seem to share similar interpretive approaches in a number of the pieces. If you take Book 1 in its entirety, there is only a nine-second difference between the two pianists, but when looking at the individual pieces, clear differences emerge. Lortie, for example, tarries more than a minute longer than Sheppard—6:22 vs. 5:14—in the first piece, “La Chapelle de Guillaume Tell,” giving it a breadth and feeling of nobility that Sheppard’s faster tempo misses. Likewise, Sheppard is almost a full minute faster than Lortie—3:30 vs. 4:25—in the seventh number, “Églogue,” though here I think Sheppard is closer to the mark in capturing the spirit of Byron’s poetry, “Laughing the clouds away with playful scorn.” In other numbers, such as the gorgeous “Vallée d’Obermann,” in my opinion the heart of Book 2, Sheppard can be more expansive than Lortie—12:59 vs. 12:10—endowing it with a bit more of Byron’s “soul, heart, mind, and passions” than Lortie musters.

As in his previous recordings, Sheppard performs on his Hamburg Steinway model D #486770, a magnificent instrument, and in the same venue, Seattle’s Meany Theater. In his self-authored booklet note, Sheppard points out that he has consulted a number of editions of Liszt’s scores, among which he considers the Henle edition to be the most reliable of all contemporary sources.

This is a difficult call. I find Sheppard’s Liszt beautifully played, deeply felt, superbly recorded, and highly satisfying, and the audience remains silent until the end of each disc, when well-deserved bravos and applause break out. Still, Lortie looms large on the scene and can’t be ignored, especially in consideration of the fact that his Book 2 is more complete for including Venezia e Napoli and offers all three books at a currently lower price than Shepard’s two. But when have collectors limited themselves to just one version of great works? Sheppard’s first two years of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage —I expect the third year will follow in due course—definitely earns a place on my shelf and deserves a strong recommendation.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Années de pèlerinage, première année, S 160 "Suisse" by Franz Liszt
Performer:  Craig Sheppard (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: Weimar, Germany 
Venue:  Meany Theater, Seattle 
Length: 45 Minutes 23 Secs. 
Années de pèlerinage, deuxième année, S 161 "Italie" by Franz Liszt
Performer:  Craig Sheppard (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1837-1849; Weimar, Germany 
Venue:  Meany Theater, Seattle 
Length: 46 Minutes 2 Secs. 

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