The Romantic mystique finds another fine acolyte in Stephen Hough, here recorded in January 2005 in the Swiss notebooks of Franz Liszt, his 1855 reworking of the Album d’un voyageur, with the additions of Orage and Eclogue. At several places in his score, Liszt inscribes words from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and from Schiller – poets who shared a sense of wanderlust and the sublime presence of Nature. The A-flat water pieces, Au lac de Wallenstadt and Au bord d’une source sparkle, each with a suggestion of a barcarolle-etude, each pointing to further developments by Debussy and Ravel. The opening Chapel of William Tell cascades with heraldry in homage to the Swiss hero, flowing arpeggios and flourishing anthems. The bucolic musings give way to the highly chromatic Orage, an evocation of an Alpine storm in thunderous octave, a pianistic tonepoem close in spirit to the Mazeppa and C Minor (Wild jagd) Transcendental etudes.
A novel by Senancour provided Liszt his muse for the extended, harmonically adventurous Vallee d’Obermann, another tonepoem for piano akin to the Dante Sonata. The plastic opening theme undergoes various transformations in its tour of Hades and Heaven – the latter in ecstatic E Major. The soft, dolente passages more than once hint at the B Minor Sonata. The morning Eclogue rings with a simplicity which must have appealed to Grieg. Le mal du pays – what Grieg likewise would call Heimweh – is wistfully nostalgic. Its opening chromatic line, taken out of context, could be by Alban Berg. Ravel is the obvious beneficiary of Les cloches de Geneve, since his own Vallee des cloches echoes many of the bell color effects. Liquid and tender, the opening carillon rises in heroic apotheosis, then fades away in a memory of divinity.
We have had some great interpreters of Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage, including Gunnar Johannesen and Lazar Berman. Certain pianists, like Wilhelm Kempff and Clifford Curzon, have relished individual sections. Assuming Mr. Hough intends to traverse the three books of studies, we are off to a happy start. Plying his Steinway with alternately monumental and diaphanous grace, Hough elicits the extreme emotional states which characterize the Liszt ethos. Fine sonic engineering by Simon Eadon to capture the piano’s middle and extreme high range without any ping or overtone clutter. Horowitz has given us a more manic reading of Vallee d’Obermann, but Hough’s is note-perfect and less neurotic. The meditative sections: Pastorale, Eclogue, and Le Chapelle de Guillaume Tell, communicate sensuous intelligence, while the bravura pieces do not want for the hints of the demonic.
Hough approaches the Gounod paraphrases (1861-1867) with loving care, the opening of the Romeo and Juliet Les Adieux shimmering in the manner of a gemlike reverie. Hough and Liszt attack Gounod’s Faust Waltz with smirking fury, a touch of schadenfroh in the glimmering bravura and wiry cadenzas, the touch of whimsy in the intermezzo based on the love duet O nuit d’amour! from Act II. Most unusual is Hough’s programming Les Sabeennes-Berceuse de l’opera La Reine de Saba (1865), based on Gounod,s all but forgotten The Queen of Sheba. The opening sequence might be Saint-Saens, the melody rising chime-like above light liquid arpeggios, only a stone’s throw from La Villa d’Este. A significant addition to Liszt interpretation, this disc.