Liszt: Années de pélerinage, Book I

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LABELS: Analekta
WORKS: Années de pèlerinage, Book I (Suisse)
PERFORMER: André Laplante (piano)

Liszt’s first, Switzerland-inspired book of Années de pèlerinage brings together the composer’s outward (landscape-evoking) and inward (literary) responses to the world of 19th-century Romanticism in a beautifully devised collection. And complete recordings of it don’t come better than this one from Canada’s André Laplante, which engages more impressively than any I know with the immense range of Liszt’s mastery of different forms and ideas.
In ‘Orage’, the torrent of octaves surging through this Byronic storm of the mind demand an intersection of weighty firepower and brilliant clarity that Laplante delivers in enthralling style. His way with the gentler pieces is just as remarkable. The contrast of two simple ideas in ‘Pastorale’ is so naturally and vividly characterised that it, too, becomes a memorable statement; and it’s hard to imagine ‘Au bord d’une source’ rippling and shimmering more hauntingly than this. 
Laplante’s ear for sonority is something special – even in the simplest moments, like the answering alphorn calls at the start of ‘Le mal du pays’. Perhaps his tight-reined brand of spontaneity misses something of the grandeur of ‘Vallée d’Obermann’? But the sheer sweep of his interpretation convinces in its own right. Of all Liszt’s greatest pieces, perhaps this is the one which raises the most tantalising questions as to how he himself must have played it.
Perhaps as something much more mercurial and impulsive than the ponderous dirge it often becomes today? Laplante’s brand of crystalline firepower convincingly suggests this. And if his magisterial way with the middle section of ‘Les cloches de Genève’ is more forthright than the score itself implies, the distant chiming bells of the closing bars are exquisitely conjured. A truly special release. Malcolm Hayes