Liszt: The Complete Annees de Pelerinage / Louis Lorti

Release Date: 3/29/2011
Label: Chandos
Catalog Number: CHAN 10662(2)
Composer: Franz Liszt
Number of Discs: 2

Physical Format:

In Stock
Notes and Editorial Reviews

LISZT Années de pèlerinage Louis Lortie (pn) CHANDOS 10662 (2 CDs: 161:20)

There’s been no dearth of Années de pèlerinage recordings over the past year or so. Predictably, they range from the compelling (Libor Novacek, Années I and II, Landor 290 and 278; André Laplante, Années I, Analekta 29980), to the less good (Michael Korstick, Années I and II, cpo 777478 and 777585), to the deeply disappointing (Jerome Lowenthal, Années complete, Bridge 9307). The new, complete Années de pèlerinage of Louis Lortie, however, is in a class all its own. He approaches this summit of romanticism steeped in the music of Liszt (his recording of all the works for piano and orchestra, Chandos 10371, a collaboration during 1999–2000 with George Pehlivanian and the Residentie Orchestra of The Hague, is one of the finest). Lortie is a richly imaginative musician and a pianist of cultured refinement whose interpretations invariably tend toward understatement. These 26 pieces occupied Liszt for some 46 years and, along with the Sonata, are emblematic of his achievement as a piano composer. You get the sense that Lortie has long lived with the entire cycle, coming to know (and love) each of its components equally well. Add to this his unstinting identification with Liszt’s poetic message, and you have all the elements required for an Années de pèlerinage of tremendous freshness and originality.

Amid the Alpine landscapes of Book I, the Swiss Year, Lortie conjures uncluttered vistas and pristine atmosphere with unhurried tempos that give each phrase plenty of breathing room. The mini-triptych within the cycle, Au lac de Wallenstadt, Pastorale, and Au Bord d’une source, is painted in luminous colors, highlighted here and there with an exquisitely inflected tempo rubato . When the bucolic idyll is shattered by Orage, Lortie lets loose this implacable force of nature with phrasing that is so deftly shaped, pedaling so restrained, and dynamics so infinitely calibrated that each gust and cascading torrent seems audible. Vallée d’Obermann , the centerpiece of the Swiss Year, has been, at least in recent decades, the most frequently excerpted piece from the cycle. Divorced from context, and in spite of its formal interest, the Vallée has come to typify the 19th-century set piece, more creaking and tear-stained with each iteration. Lortie will have none of that. In a performance both masculine and heartfelt, we sense Obermann’s struggle toward spiritual rejuvenation through the majesty of nature. In place of a sob sister, we have a psychological drama, a genuine pilgrimage, at once gripping and imminently credible, that restores the dignity and stature of this wonderful piece.

Book II, the first of the two Italian Years, demonstrates Lortie’s success in both the scintillatingly intimate miniature and the implacable grandeur of the epic. The chaste refinement of color and line in Raphael’s Milan altarpiece are evoked in an ecstatic reading of Sposalizio. The three Sonnetti del Petrarca provide an interesting case of how the over-exposed can be imbued with new luster and meaning. Lortie achieves this with an unambiguous directness and simplicity of utterance. It is as though we hear Petrarch’s poems declaimed. The fioritura cadenzas emerge organically from the text, a piacere, each note beautifully articulated and perfectly suited to context. Moreover, the Sonnetti exemplify Lortie’s characteristic phrasing, always delineated by what can be maintained with human breath. The culmination of Book II, Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata , known as the Dante Sonata , is the longest piece of the entire cycle and far away the most technically challenging. The stentorian introduction draws on an unusually varied dynamic palette to set the stage for the drama that will unfold. In the Presto agitato assai , evoking the whirlwinds of the Inferno, Lortie maintains extraordinarily extended crescendi and decresecendi , drawing on an infinitely calibrated dynamic control and acute rhythmical inflection. Later, in the transition between the second statement of the redemption motif and the return to the infernal maelstrom, he uses the strategy again with stunning results. Over the course of a minute and 20 seconds, and through 22 note-filled measures covering more than two pages in the score, Lortie builds one long, seamless crescendo of overwhelming magnitude. At the return of the tremolando redemption motif in the piano’s upper registers, it sounds like shimmering violins. The final apotheosis seems a blaze of light, though here, as throughout the piece, there is no hint of overplaying or empty bombast. It might be added that in the Dante Sonata, and in pieces like the Chappelle de Guillaume Tell from Book I and Book III’s Sunt lacrymae rerum, where Liszt exploits the piano’s lowest register, it sounds as though the bottom-octave strings of Lortie’s Fazioli grand are a quarter mile long.

But the most remarkable feature of this outstanding recording is the third Année . Its seven pieces represent a distillation of Liszt’s late style and inhabit psychological realms seldom traversed by other 19th-century composers. A number of pianists who recorded the first two books simply don’t venture into the third, and those who have seem confounded sooner or later. Lortie, on the other hand, has plumbed the depths of these strange yet deeply artistic creations, developing interpretations that are remarkable in sharpness of focus and clarity of expression. The best-known of the set, Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este, combines the utmost delicacy and refinement with a disarming simplicity. Phrases are sculpted with unerring proportion and contour. The villa’s hundred fountains sparkle and splash in a virtuoso display of exquisitely understated pianistic finesse. Nor are the implications of Liszt’s Biblical reference to the waters of everlasting life neglected; a sense of ecstatic spirituality pervades the whole as though it were a sacrament in sound. Musically speaking, the Marche funèbre for the Emperor Maximillian, with its dark impasto and difficult transitions, is one of the most challenging pieces in the set. But what has remained a puzzle in many otherwise creditable performances of the third Année is compellingly deciphered by Lortie. Liszt’s idiosyncratic rhetoric is rendered comprehensible, including the problematic fortissimo trionfante in F?-Major that in so many other readings simply falls flat. Book III opens with Angelus , a prayer to the guardian angels, and closes with Sursum corda , “lift up your hearts,” a reference to the preface to the canon of the Mass. The blend of intuition, intellect, and philosophical insight Lortie brings to Sursum corda , with its prismatic harmonies undulating over the fixed anchor of a pedal point on E, creates a mighty culmination of the cycle.

On this recording, Venezia e Napoli , the supplement to Book II, is placed at the end of the recording, following the stylistically distant third Année . It is an interesting choice, which casts Venezia e Napoli as a sort of encore to the entire cycle, bringing us back to earth after the lofty metaphysics of Book III. Incidentally, the Tarantella is fierce. The recording was made during three days last November at Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, and the Chandos engineers captured the sound of Lortie’s Fazioli grand brilliantly.

This Années de pèlerinage is unquestionably one of the finest releases thus far during the Liszt bicentennial. Time will tell, but it also may be the finest recording of the work to date. Not to be missed.

FANFARE: Patrick Rucker


Louis Lortie's survey of the complete Années de Pèlerinage adds up to his finest Liszt playing on disc. The interpretations abound with new-found reserves of virtuosic flair and poetic sensitivity. You hear both of these qualities in the opening piece, La chapelle de Guillaume Tell, where Lortie varies the murmuring tremolo chords with subtle nuances yet doesn't hold back in the climactic Allegro vivace. You hear similar textural variety and heightened drama throughout Aux cypres de la Villa d'Este II.

In both Orage and the Dante sonata Lortie's superb technique enables him to articulate the long stretches of octaves in shapely legato lines that are executed with minimum pedal. This similarly applies to the ferocity and momentum Lortie generates in Vallée d'Obermann's peroration. Whereas pianists like Claudio Arrau and Muza Rubackyté take their time to savor Les jeux d'eau à la Villa d'Este's jet-spray arpeggiated figures, Lortie's comparable accuracy and finesse reveals them in a lighter, more playful manifestation. Lortie's well-judged tempo relationships create unity and momentum in Venezia e Napoli's Tarantella, but I prefer Marc-André Hamelin's almost offhanded panache and astounding repeated-note technique. While Chandos' slightly diffuse and distant sonics don't match Rubackyté's Lyrinx release for detail and warmth, they do reflect Lortie's robust sonority as one might experience it in a small concert hall. Strongly recommended.

--Jed Distler,
Works on This Recording
1. Années de pèlerinage, première année, S 160 "Suisse" by Franz Liszt
Performer: Louis [Piano] Lortie (Piano)
Period: Romantic
2. Années de pèlerinage, deuxième année, S 161 "Italie" by Franz Liszt
Performer: Louis [Piano] Lortie (Piano)
Period: Romantic
Written: 1837-1849 ; Weimar, Germany
3. Années de pèlerinage no 3, S 163 by Franz Liszt
Performer: Louis [Piano] Lortie (Piano)
Period: Romantic
Written: 1867-1877 ; Rome, Italy
4. Venezia e Napoli, S 162 by Franz Liszt
Performer: Louis [Piano] Lortie (Piano)
Period: Romantic
Written: 1859 ; Weimar, Germany
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