LISZT: “Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses” – Roberto Plano, p. – Decca (2 CDs)

Plano fulfills both aspects of Liszt’s Poetic and Religious Harmonies with style and fluent grace.

LISZT: “Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses” – Invocation; Ave Maria; Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude; Pensee des Morts; Pater Noster; Hymne de l’Enfant a son Reve; Funerailles; Miserere d’apres Palestrina; Andante Lagrimoso; Cantique d’Amour (Consolation No. 3 in D-flat Major) – Roberto Plano, p. – Decca 481 2479 (2 CDs), 48:00, 42:00 (7/29/16) [Distr. by Universal] *****: 

The issue of “who will assume the mantle?” of the great, by-gone pianists – Horowitz, Rubinstein, Cziffra, Casadesus – always stirs debate; but in the case of Roberto Plano’s survey of the 1848-1853 collection of Liszt, his Poetic and Religious Harmonies, we might acclaim him as the heir-apparent of Jorge Bolet. Finalist in the Van Cliburn Competition 2005, Roberto Plano has since toured US extensively every year, as well as Europe. He has recently been appointed as piano professor by the Boston University, where he will start next September. For this recording of Liszt, from the Fazioli Concerto Hall, 28-30 September 2015, Plano performs on a warmly-toned instrument dubbed “Mago Merlino” by the late French virtuoso, Aldo Ciccolini.

Liszt, who constantly sought the spiritual within the confines of the secular, conceived his set of Religious and Poetic Harmonies (1847-1853) in the shadow of the poet Lamartine, prefacing three of the pieces with fragments and reflections from the poet’s collected works:

Rise up, voice of my soul,
With the dawn, with the night!
Leap up like the flame,
Spread abroad like the noise!
Float on the wing of the clouds,
Mingle with the winds, with storms,
With thunder, and the tumult of the waves.

So, Liszt introduces his powerful Invocation (ending in E Major), meant to be played Rasch und feurig, creating an octave-laden ritual that literally burns with fervent devotion. The likeness of the poem and the music to aspects of the Keats “Ode to the West Wind” should be fairly plain, as the protagonist participates in the transcendent powers of Nature. The Fazioli instrument Plano plays adds a luminous sheen to the following Ave Maria, based on a short four-part choral work in Liszt’s catalogue. Ending also in E Major, the archaic piece exploits long-held notes that anticipate the grand piece of the set, the arch-like Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude of 1845. Set in Liszt’s most “spiritual” key of F-sharp Major, the liquid pearls of this piece experience two episodes – in D and B-flat – that eventually reunite with the home key in fearful symmetry. At several points, we feel the contours of the Beethoven Moonlight Sonata, an effect repeated in Thought of the Dead. The tension between luminous, erotic arabesques and deep block chords exemplifies the very crux of Liszt’s earthbound devotion.

The contradictions in Liszt’s concept of faith find realization in his Pensee des morts, which opens with a tritone, a device that marks the b minor Sonata and the Dante Sonata. Liszt asks for a sense of ennui in this fascinating piece, even we descend, like Dante, into the depths. Eventually, a lovely theme in G Major emerges, which seems at war with the emotional turmoil that precedes it. Plano drives the ostinato bass lines hard, the figures reminiscent of manic Schumann or Liszt’s own b minor Sonata. The magic of the work often lies in its studied silences, a method that must surely have impressed Scriabin. The music, as it indulges Beethoven, has the words of the De profundis inscribed in the score as commentary.  The test of the following Pater noster (in C Major) lies in its archaic demand of a bleached keyboard tone, while the figures intone modal, Gregorian harmonies. Plano sets a seal of mortality on this piece, potent and ineffable.

The Hymne de l’Enfant a son Reveil derives from a work for female choir, harmonium and harp of 1845 that Liszt set to a text by Lamartine.  In A-flat Major, the piece has a plainchant quality, even in its harmonized form, that invests a Rousseau kind of natural innocence into the work, a musical equivalent of a sermon by Francis of Assisi. The massive Funerailles sounds a death-knell for those who fell during the Hungarian uprisings of 1848-1850, as well as signaling a farewell to the departed Fredric Chopin. The tolling bells find their complement in tremolos, diminished fourths, dotted rhythms, and octave passages explicitly alluding to the “Heroic” Polonaise of Chopin. Given the brilliant performance preserved on Cembal d’amour (CD 183) of Mordecai Shehori’s 1992 rendition, it might be difficult to assign more superlatives to Plano, but he does render a potent, tragically dignified experience.

Liszt changes the mood to one of liturgical meditation in his Miserere d’apres Palestrina, which has less Renaissance than a Romantic’s treatment of a melody Liszt heard at the Sistine Chapel. The originally unadorned melody suddenly becomes lavish with arpeggios and brilliant runs over thick bass chords. Plano ends the short with colossal prowess. Andante lagrimoso projects a salon melancholy from the first, a response to a sad series of lines from Lamartine that silent tears upon a world devoid of pity. The right hand filigree attempts to find diaphanous solace, perhaps in the muse of poetry. The lovely piano tone owes its effect to Raffaele Cacciola, Bartok Studio. The last of the set, Cantique d’amour, assigns the main melody to the middle register of the keyboard, whilst the surrounding tissue becomes virtuosic and ornate.  Liszt has returned to the notion of a hymn in which religiosity and eroticism combine. Liszt marks the accompaniment quasi Arpa, to highlight his paradoxically celestial source for all experience, sacred and profane.

Plano provides us the D-flat Major Consolation No. 3 (1850), which he finds akin to the simplicity of the Hymne de enfant a son reveil.  Marked Lento placido, the piece asks Plano for continuous arpeggio figures under a gentle, seductive melody. I daresay that Plano’s model for his lyric reading may well have been that of Jorge Bolet.

—Gary Lemco

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