LISZT: Les Annees de Pelerinage, Books I and II – Craig Sheppard, piano – Romeo Records (2 CDs)

by | Jun 1, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

LISZT: Les Annees de Pelerinage, Books I and II – Craig Sheppard, piano – Romeo Records 7298-90 (2 CDs), 46:43; 47:22 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
After the B Minor Sonata, the Years of Pilgrimage (1835-c. 1861) rank as Liszt’s finest achievement for the keyboard, traversing as they do a landscape of the spirit rife with personal doubts and natural, literary, and metaphysical consolations. Switzerland and Italy provide the occasions for Liszt’s poetic musings, which often reveal his depth of response to contrary feelings of loneliness and communion, self-effacement and heroism, of defiance and cosmic acceptance. Craig Sheppard (b. 1947), a pupil of Susan Starr, Lillian Kallir, and Rudolf Serkin, plays in fine reproduced sound his own Hamburg Steinway in a compilation of two performances he gave in Seattle’s Meany Theater, 20-21 October 2011.
The Chapel of William Tell establishes the literary and epic-biographical tone of the journey, which in Liszt’s actual life lasted 1835-1839, when he and La Comtesse Marie d’Agoult fled a disdainful Paris society to follow a path laid out by former writers and artists.  Passionate and patriotic, the piece inserts the tritone to represent those malign forces that the fearless soul must overcome. Huge block chords and sweeping melodic riffs establish the scale of the Romantic ego and its confrontation with Romantic Agony. Le Lac de Wallenstadt, via its assertion of Byron’s Childe Harold, asserts the primacy of nature, the simple melody based on a mountain song. Sheppard’s bass chords and rippling treble line testify to a sympathetic, restful bower of sound as respite from a troubled world. Pastorale extends the rustic conceit, the drone a possible allusion to passing shepherds, the musical aura easily influential of Grieg. Au bord d’un source, made up of major seconds in pearly play, creates a “fountain of life” effect, prefaced in the score by a quote from Schiller. Ravel’s Jeux d’eau could not have existed without this Liszt masterpiece.
Orage reveals the dark side of nature, a conceit we experience in Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” in which the poet bears witness to primal creation and destruction at once. Sheppard attacks this fearsome etude head-on, infusing a sweeping power that elevates Byron’s “eagle’s nest” to the dazzling plane of the Transcendental Etudes, say Wild Jagd, No. 8. The huge piece, Vallee d’Obermann, after an epistolary novel by Senancour, traces the Liszt formula of musical ecstasies, of despair and triumph, in the course of exploring life’s “hidden forces.” Like Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasy, in that the difficulty lies in bearing a taut line through its sectional development, the piece finds a meditative, thoughtful performance from Sheppard, one less intent on exploiting the piece as a bravura vehicle.
Sheppard notes that the contrasting simplicity of Eglogue (after Virgil) should be played two beats to the bar, rather than in four, as indicated. Thus rendered in two, the music moves in cantering air instead of maudlin molasses.  Something of its simple melodic line influences young Debussy. A Swiss alpine melody informs Le Mal du Pays, the homesickness incurred upon gazing at the mercurial beauties (in punctuated scales, staccato) and majesty of the Alps. Although Senancour claims authorship for the emotion, the sentiment in Liszt leans towards Novalis’ famous remark that “each man is going home.” The middle section reminds one of Chopin’s B Minor Scherzo lullaby. The Swiss Year concludes with Les Cloches de Geneve, a radiant study in B Major redolent with memories of refuge and connubial peace that culminated with the birth of Liszt and Marie’s daughter, Blandine. Once more, Liszt asks Byron’s Childe Harold to grace the occasion with sentiments of communion, the bells of Geneva ringing sweetly by virtue of Sheppard’s inspired performance.
More bells of a kind, in descending fifths, open Sposalizio, based on Raffaello’s The Betrothal of the Virgin, the first of Liszt’s travels throughout Italian contemplations. A hybrid nocturne-etude-ballade, the piece becomes lavishly insistent, and its motto theme rises in a kind of spiritual ascension consonant with its exalted subject. Again, Sheppard’s right hand figures in the middle pages invoke something of Debussy’s E Major Arabesque.
Il Penseroso takes its funereal cue from Michelangelo, a gloomy misanthropic piece that echoes Quasimodo’s sentiment, especially poignant from Charles Laughton, “Why was I, too, not made of stone?” In immediate contrast, spiritually, the Canzonetta del Salvador Rosa, exploits a song by Bonancini that Sheppard plays andantino with glib self-assurance, a swagger in keeping with the sentiment that “My inner fire and my persona forever remain the same.”
The three Petrarch Sonnets (47, 104, 123) elaborate conceits that augment the vernacular Italian language to a status that Dante proved could embrace the epic form. Petrarch idealizes his Laura as had Dante his Beatrice, as that form of the “eternal feminine” who leads us upward. Shifting between profane and sacred desire, the three studies embrace passion in its carnality and its original form of agon, of suffering as an ennobling impulse. The Lisztian rhetoric of ecstasies, well familiar through these oft-performed pieces, finds a natural exponent in Sheppard, whose understated but tasteful renditions fuse what Goethe had described as “truth and poetry.”  Sheppard’s ability to shade a diminuendo warrants the price of admission, as do his high trills in Sonnet 123. So, too, Victor Hugo echoes the veracity of imaginative vision with his credo, “When the poet paints Hell, he paints life.” The D Minor Dante Sonata moves from Petrarch to Dante by means of a fantasia that follows directly from A-flat to D Minor, itself a form of the “forbidden” tritone. The movement from the infernal regions and their metric/harmonic ambiguities to the soft light of the D Major of salvation becomes a true battleground of the spirit under Sheppard.  Occasionally, filigree from the first Mephisto Waltz creeps in, as do tropes from Eine Faust-Sinfonie. The tender sentiments poets retain for Francesca da Rimini convince us that evens Hell’s furies relent in the name of sincere passionate love. In his application of colors, nuances, and depths of emotion to this exquisitely broad canvas, Mr. Sheppard joins the ranks of luminaries Arrau, Dichter, and Bar-Ilan who, like Omar Khayyam, realize that we ourselves embody both Heaven and Hell.
—Gary Lemco