Liszt: Complete Années de pèlerinage

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Complete Années de pèlerinage; Venezia e Napoli, S162
PERFORMER: Louis Lortie (piano)

While extracts from Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage cycle now appear frequently on disc, complete recordings of all three books (or ‘years’) of this ultimate piano masterwork, with or without its shorter Italian supplement Venezia e Napoli, remain rare.
This isn’t surprising, given the sheer scale of the challenge – plus the uncompromising nature of much of the later third book, which puts most pianists off anyway (apart from the much-played ‘Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este’). Louis Lortie’s credentials for taking on this greatest of musical pilgrimages are self-evident from the start. The opening ‘Chapelle de Guillaume Tell’, from the Switzerland-inspired first book, is delivered with epic sweep and grandeur, wonderfully shimmering tremolos, and a huge tonal range.
Too huge, perhaps? In ‘Vallée d’Obermann’, Lortie has the deep bass notes of his Fazioli piano sounding like magnificent subterranean bells, and throughout the cycle he conjures one beautiful range of soft colours after another (the coda of ‘Gondoliera’ in Venezia e Napoli is exquisite). Remarkable playing, but there is also a tendency to harshness at full or full-ish power. On the downside, too, the recording’s surrounding resonance is a touch over-sumptuous, but these issues are effortlessly outweighed by the recital’s strengths.
The second, Italy-centred book has Lortie responding memorably to the poetry of ‘Sposalizio’ and the Petrarch Sonnets, then taking the fearsome demands of the ‘Dante Sonata’ in his stride. And his artistry in the third book is if anything even finer. In the second ‘Cypresses’ threnody, the music’s strange mood-swings between desolation and quiet radiance are captured exactly; the Villa d’Este’s fountains sparkle with much loveliness; and the sombre power of the final, defiant ‘Sursum corda’ shows no trace of melodrama. 
This is not a definitive set: the sheer range of the music’s demands makes the notion impossible. Still, this is an excellent set to be warmly recommended. Malcolm Hayes