Canadian pianist André Laplante is a firmly established virtuoso of the great romantic repertoire. He garnered international attention after winning prizes at the Geneva and Sydney International Piano [...]
They spoke about it
Following a phenomenal series of recital, pianist André Laplante presents the work that captivated audiences and critics: the First Book from Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage (Suisse).
Années de Pèlerinage – Suisse
Having recently travelled to many new countries, through different settings and places consecrated by history and poetry; having felt that the phenomena of nature and their attendant sights did not pass before my eyes as pointless images but stirred deep emotions in my soul, and that between us a vague but immediate relationship had established itself, an undefined but real rapport, an inexplicable but undeniable communication, I have tried to portray in music a few of my strongest sensations and most lively impressions. (Franz Liszt, from the preface to Années de pèlerinage)
Like many of the piano works published by Franz Liszt in the 1850s, the Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) are essentially a revisiting of previous material. Hence, most of the first volume, “Suisse,” is taken from his Album du voyageur, composed during his years in Switzerland with Marie d’Agoult (the exceptions being Églogue, which was published separately, and Orage, written for inclusion with the definitive version of the cycle).
The meeting, in 1832, of young Liszt and d’Agoult—who was six years his senior, a sensible wife and mother of two, and a published author under the pen name Daniel Stern—would prove to be a dazzling romance. Neither would escape unscathed from this collision between “the most extraordinary person I have met” (as d’Agoult wrote of Liszt in her memoirs) and a self-described “six inches of snow over 20 feet of lava.”
From the very beginning, our discussions were serious and, as if by mutual accord, completely free of banality. Without hesitation or effort, simply by the natural inclination of our minds, we came immediately to speak of elevated topics, which alone aroused our interest. … Childe Harold, Manfred, Werther, Obermann, and all the superb and desperate revolutionaries of romantic poetry were our companions on those sleepless nights. Like them, he extolled a proud disdain of convention, he shuddered beneath the hated yoke of aristocracies, based on neither genius or virtue; he wanted nothing further to do with submission or resignation, but instead harboured a holy hatred, relentless and avenging, of all iniquity.
Both members of Parisian high society, the two lovers used every trick in the book to keep their affair a secret. Thus, in 1834, they spent over half the year apart. The tragic death of Marie’s eldest daughter in December of that year hastened an emotional reunion. In June of 1835, Marie turned her back on a comfortable life, abandoned her young daughter Claire, and fled with Franz to Switzerland, where their daughter Blandine was born in December. Liszt gradually shifted away from his day-to-day life as a concert pianist and began to teach and to compose Album du voyageur, the title of which makes reference to the famous Lettres of George Sand, a close friend of the couple. When Liszt reworked the entire cycle in the 1850s, he changed the title to Années de pèlerinage, in reference to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.
While this intimate musical diary appears to be inspired by Helvetian landscapes, it transcends simple description, as if the music’s emotional power was predicated on the power of natural wonders to conjure up memories of the beloved literary passages of Schiller, Byron or Senacour with which Lizst prefaced each work. This poetic colouration overlaying the visual impressions created by the music’s free and daring language communicates a host of sensations and emotions. Liszt’s harmonic control is intuitive and exhibits a richness that few composers of the day could master with such ease. For the performer, being able to convey these multiple layers requires not only exceptional technique but also a wide-ranging creativity and insight.
An homage to the national heroes of Switzerland and preceded by the saying “All for one, one for all,” Chapelle de Guillaume Tell opens the cycle with a hymn-like treatment of the material before the evocations of the Alphorn spill into powerful octaves and chords.
Au lac de Wallenstadt, written shortly after Liszt arrived in Switzerland, brings certain works of Schubert to mind, with its delicacy and troubling innocence. In her memoirs, d’Agoult writes: “We lingered for some time on the shores of Lake Wallenstadt. Franz composed a melancholy harmony for me there, imitating the sigh of the waves and the rhythm of the oars, which I was never able to hear without weeping.”
The simple Pastorale leads to a second water-themed sketch in the same key of A-flat, Au bord d’une source. With subtle elegance, it paints a complex picture of the glistening spring, anticipating some of Dubussy’s Préludes. Liszt cites Schiller here: “In the whispering coolness begins young nature’s play.”
Reminiscent of both his own Malédiction for piano and orchestra and the theme of Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude, Orage is a remarkable description of nature’s fury. Wild octaves and formidable passages in double thirds bear the unmistakable mark of the virtuoso. Lines from Byron preface this work: “But where of ye, O tempests! is the goal? / Are ye like those within the human breast? / Or do ye find, at length, like eagles, some high nest?”
Vallée d’Obermann, the most substantial work of the collection, is also the most sublime. Inspired by Senancour’s novel Obermann—set in Switzerland and passionately read, reread and annotated by the two lovers—this piece contains some especially daring harmony that occasionally foreshadows the upheaval brought about by Wagner. Liszt cites Byron again, but also Senancour: “Que veux-je? Que suis-je? Que demander à la nature?” (What do I want? Who am I? What do I ask of nature?), questions that seem to sum up the cycle’s very essence.
In contrast to the menacing intensity of Vallée d’Obermann, the delicate shepherd’s song Églogue forms a transition to Le mal du pays, based on a Swiss folk theme in which the alphorn heard at the start of the cycle makes an almost nostalgic return.
The cycle ends with Les cloches de Genève, an exquisite tribute to the birth of Blandine, introduced by two lines of Byron—“I live not in myself, but I become / Portion of that around me”—in which a tender carillon gradually enlivens toward an impassioned climax before the collection closes with an evocation of bells heard in the distance.
This first book of the Années de pèlerinage is both an inward and an outward journey. Seemingly anchored in the world of earthly sensations, it makes a series of connections between two people who loved each other deeply, but also between landscapes and beloved poets. Above all, it creates a remarkably coherent link to the almost exclusively literary world of the second book and the religious and spiritual world of the third.
© Lucie Renaud
Translation: Peter Christensen