The Sursum Corda , the final, uplifting piece of Liszt’s Troisième Année, is well placed; it is preceeded by two works which show Liszt’s Hungarian blood and which are both about death. Sunt lacrimae rerum – En mode hongrois, like Funérailles, was a response to the disastrous Hungarian War of Independence and the executions which followed it. Full of augmented 2nds at the opening, harshly angular in its rhythms and its intervals, at times it growls in the subterranean depths of the piano, at times there are plaintive echoes of features from the Hungarian Rhapsodies. The title quotes Aeneas, crying as he looks at murals depicting the deaths of his friends and countrymen in the Trojan War.
And then – more death, again with political overtones, in the Marche funébre, in memory of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, executed with two of his generals. A weary, ostinato chromatic tread in the bass accompanies a melody – more like a ceaseless chromatic wail – which almost breaks into the Dies Irae. Sweeter moments of recitative follow, then a triumphant finish. Liszt wrote on the score a Latin quotation from an Elegy by Propertius – translated: ‘To have wished for great things is an accomplishment in itself.’
Pieces two, three and four of the Troisième Année were inspired by the Villa d’Este at Tivoli near Rome, where Liszt often stayed. Two are Thrénodies – yes, this set does have a decidedly morbid content – both are Aux cyprès de la Villa d’Este, those tall, slim trees so characteristic of the Italian landscape. The first is immediately arresting, with an opening similar to the Gondoliera, although more menacing, and a disturbing melody. It is hard aurally to grasp any tonal centre amongst the chromaticism, yet sometimes the tonality settles, giving a few moments of respite.
Similarly, the second, longer Thrénodie opens as if it is lost and trying to find its way. Stark octaves declaim the theme. A more martial section intervenes, before harplike passagework surrounds a melody of greater hope. Unease, a martial interruption, questioning octaves and recitative – then a kind of resigned closure, compromised by a nagging semitone.
And now, the fourth piece, the central one in this set of seven, and the jewel in the crown. So much darkness amongst those cypresses, but in Les Jeux d’eaux à la villa d’Este all is light, in the dazzling radiance of F# major. The hundreds of fountains in the gardens of the Villa come to life in a piece which shows the Liszt of old in its pianistic mastery, and the Liszt who looks ahead in its near impressionism; the piece influenced Ravel, and Debussy – who heard Liszt play it in Rome. And at the serene middle section there is another Latin quote, this time from St John’s Gospel: ‘ but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up unto eternal life.’