How fortunate for posterity that Franz Liszt chose to create a very personal memoire of his travels (Years of Pilgrimage) with nearly three hours on “entries” from his sojourn through Switzerland and Italy. Better still that Jerome Lowenthal (joined by his daughter Carmel for the bonus tracks of Christmas Tree Suite, Books II and III) was ready, willing and superbly able to traverse this richly rewarding repertoire and make it so readily available to the public.
The icing on this digital cake is the inclusion of Les cloches de G***** as the point of departure. Having just reviewed Richard Danielpour’s deeply moving homage to a young life cruelly snatched away (A Child’s Reliquary, cross-reference below), Liszt’s celebration of the birth of his first child, Blandine, is just the tonic and marvellously sets the stage for the musical journey ahead.
Immediately the ear is flooded with a dreamy, delicate lullaby. Lowenthal infuses the music with a miracle of touch and steady organic growth. These bells truly ring while the central barcarolle is a model of inner comfort. Heralded by groups of repeated notes, the intensity heats up until the keyboard burns with technical pyrotechnics before Liszt catches his breath and quietly lets his unabashed revelry subside. One can only imagine Blandine’s reaction when hearing her Natale piece for the first time as an adult.
Compelling strength and subtly leading bass lines are the key ingredients to “Chapelle de Guillaume Tell,” which features a section infused with nothing short of rapture for Schiller’s hero, complemented by a respectful adieu. “Au Lac de Wallenstadt” is remarkable for its unerring flow and oh-so-discreet modal shifts—too few pianists before the public today can read between the harmonic lines. Carefree, short-lived joy—so like real life—is the hallmark “Pastorale”: a mere ninety seconds still has much to say.
A fully formed palette of colours and hues fills the somewhat Chopinesque, so artfully busy “Au Bord d’une Source” to the brim. It’s not hard to imagine Tchaikovsky in the wings of “Orage” where this storm’s thundering rage is further heightened by snippets of silence, brilliantly setting the stage for the centrepiece which follows.
“Vallée d’Obermann” has a magical opening, beginning as if the music was already in progress and the listener pulled the latch of a soundproof door. The quietly reflective essay of self has heaps of longing to know. The questions (“What do I want? What am I? What can I ask of Nature?) are tempered by Lowenthal with intriguing dollops of “hesitato”—never overdone affectations or self-indulgence. The childlike, upper-register sequence is breathtaking, innocently preparing the way for the crisis/climax that still manages to resolve itself by believing in a higher entity.
The extra-romantic “Èglogue” lifts off with perfectly poised ebb and flow only to blossom into full-blooded glory. The homesickness that underscores “Le mal du pays” is crafted by the twin components of liquid longing and nimble dexterity. “Les cloches de Genève: Nocturne” completes the Swiss set with deftly executed changes of register and the remarkable idea that these thoughtful bells are tolling for we. The final three chords bid farewell with magnificent understatement: few today can muster Lowenthal’s expressive, understated touch.
The Second Year, shifts the locale to various parts of Italy. First in Milan where Raphael’s Sposalizio della Virgine (The Marriage of the Virgin) fired the composer’s imagination. It’s a reverie of visual and aural arts, using broad strokes and sharing intimate details. Lowenthal deftly shades the repeated notes with subtle texture that is at one with the artist.
Michelangelo’s statue of Giuliano di Medici (a.k.a. “Il Penseroso”) is a spectacular portrait right from its heroic, bold opening. The unity-of-purpose E-flats are seen from all sides until the painful adieu signals what, sooner or later, awaits us all.
Giovanni Battista Bononcini’s sunny melodic skills are at the root of Canzonetta, which is a welcome lark after the preceding darkness. The shared dotted rhythms of the two (occasionally flirting with a triplet feel here) add to the sense of inevitability that permeates this wide-ranging “year.”
The Three Sonnets by Petrarca are expertly rendered in their instrumental form. “Sonetto 47” is at once wistfully reflective and a model of flexibility within the lines. The emotional cauldron of “Sonetto 104” is effectively fed by scraps of frenzy, delectable refinement and deep introspection. “Sonetto 123” is beguilingly injected with precious “hesitato,” lovingly shaped and balanced on its ascent into the heavens.
The core of the three-year set is without doubt “Après une lecture de Dante: Fantasia Quasi Sonata.” This journey to the dark side has textural elements in common with the grim horror of Olaf Ittenbach’s cinematic representation of the Kingdom of Pain (cross-reference below). Lowenthal delivers a wild ride into the depths of Hades, frequently punctuated by jerky rhythms of despair, replete with anguish to burn. Happily, following these purgatorial dots leads to symbolic consonance and the heady rapture of defeating Lucifer on his own turf.
Italianate warmth is the welcome antidote to Dante’s awful vision as the “Gondoliers” easily wins its way into anyone’s heart—the first of three appendices with stops in Venice and Naples. The “Canzone” can’t help but embrace its melodramatic roots, surrounded with deceptively easy sounding tremolos that always know their place in Lowenthal’s hands. The concluding dance, “Tarantella,” is a technical tour de force that few can successfully present intact, much less see through forests of dense notation and allow the music to greet its listeners with ease.
The concluding book of the set most assuredly delves high and low into the final destination of a life’s pilgrimage. More introspective than ever, Liszt combines his craft with mystical elements, bringing to bear his own disappointments (Hungary’s political upheavals in particular, so well laid out in “Sunt lacrymae rerum”—“Here too are tears of our misfortunes, In the Hungarian mode”), ideals (the refreshing, cleansing beautifully shimmering founts of cascading water in “Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este”) and—not without much anguish and doubt—unshakeable faith (constantly anchored by E, the final “Sursum Corda”—“Lift Up Your Hearts”—unflinchingly turns over every harmonic possibility before surmounting all odds and finding eternal peace). For believers, surely heaven doesn’t get much closer than this.
Throughout it all, Lowenthal tackles every musical, technical and spiritual challenge head on, frequently at one with the master’s vision, scaling the pianistic heights with ringing aplomb (literally in “Aux cypress de la Villa d’Este”) and unlocking the subtext no matter how cloaked it may seem to others (e.g., the few breaths of Tristan allowed to speak for themselves; never didactically given). Here’s a pilgrimage everyone ought to make.
To fill out the third disc, Lowenthal is joined by his daughter Carmel and the pair ideally reinforce the familial nature of Liszt’s Weinachtsbaum (Christmas Tree Suite). Book I being traditional favourites was left for another day; the final two books are a delectable box of sweets that will make any holiday occasion a happier affair.
With a touch more reverberation to light the acoustic way, “Scherzoso” (“Merrymaking: The Lighting of the Candles on the Tree”) engages from the first flame, notable for the performers’ unanimity of note lengths that playfully renders the music as one. Chiming exuberance (with just a hint of Bizet’s Jeux D’enfants) rings true throughout “Carillon.” This “Cradle-Song” is so gently shared that anyone’s eyelids may soon droop only to have welcome sleep delayed by the subtle harmonic excursions wrapped in a warm blanket of continuous flow (not surprisingly, father and daughter are equally adept at employing consistent weight in their legatos). After the brief off-the-beaten-track provincial song, the ear is soon filled with a bevy of gleaming, refined “Evening Bells” that would be a welcome ornament on any yuletide tree. “Ehemals” (“Old Times”) is another highlight where love and respect for the older generation is a breath of fresh societal air in our modern era of warehousing those who have given so much.
The books conclude with a self-portrait that has no qualms about showing Liszt swaggering about the march (“Ungarisch”—“Hungarian”) with unbending confidence before deferring to his longtime companion (Princess von Sayn Wittgenstein) whose personality is instantly drawn with an infectious, precocious Mazurka for all to see and hear. These two musical pendants are welcome additions to the festive branches of all holiday arbours.
By adding these bonbons after the far-reaching journey of Years of Pilgrimage, Lowenthal has purposely reminded us all of just what matters in life. What fun to be in the room when his own grandchildren are serenaded with this extra-personal art. JWR