LISZT: Annees de Pelerinage: Deuxieme Anne: Italie = Sposalizio; Il Penseroso; Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa; Three Petrarch Sonnets; Apres une Lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata; Annees de Pelerinage: Premiere Annee: Au lac de Wallenstadt; Au bord d’une source; Annees de Pelerinage: Troisieme Annee: Les jeux d’eau a la Villa d’Este – Christine Stevenson, piano – RFZ Classics, 67:56 ****
Christine Stevenson is an Australian (Melbourne) pianist who has studied with pupils of Cortot, of Nadia Boulanger and of Michelangeli, and with the celebrated English pianist Ronald Smith, also participating in master classes given by Sergei Dorensky, Aldo Ciccolini and Vlado Perlemuter. Stevenson has shared her commitment to the Franz Liszt bicentennial with performances of Years of Pilgrimage: Italy in the UK and Australia, playing on an 1845 piano autographed by Liszt’s contemporary and rival, Thalberg. The present recital derives from sessions 24-25 February 2011 from Potton Hall, Suffolk, England.
The cycle of Italian pictures (1837-1839) opens with a meditation on Raphael’s Sposalizio, “The Marriage of the Virgin,” in which bells toll in varied registers. The chord progressions and cascading runs easily presage figures in Debussy, like his E MajorArabesque. Liszt had written that “Raphael and Michelangelo gave me a better understanding of Mozart and Beethoven.” The finely-honed cadences of the last pages suggest an ascension saturated by Divine Light. A drum-like dirge announces Michelangelo’s Il Penseroso, a study of Lorenzo de’ Medici at the San Lorenzo Church in Florence. Michelangelo’s gloomy “The Speech of Night” informs the piece, given its persona’s dark misanthropy, glad to be made of stone while injustice and shame inhabit the earth. Cautious staggered harmonies proceed chromatically, the bass line dipping into the keyboard’s lower depths. Stevenson adopts a jaunty tempo for the ensuing Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa, the melody freely borrowed from Bonancini. The immediate contrast to the Il Penseroso could hardly be greater, since this charming march instantiates a carefree spirit, a rogue and unrepentant rake.
The three Petrarch Sonnets celebrate three estates of love: fresh amour, passionate desire, and celestial love or agape. Stevenson executes Sonnet 47 with a light hand, the chords searching the harmonic spectrum for fulfillment, much in the manner of Wagner’s Tristan. Yet the simple and tender melody that arises bears a naïve charm, undeniable. The ubiquitous Sonnet 104 pays homage to Love’s contradictions, its paradoxical inflamed serenity. The drooping figures enjoy pregnant silences from Stevenson, sighs, and wistful glances, the arpeggios rife with tears of erotic joy. Even more lofty and redolent at first with Schubert’s Staendchen, the Sonnet 123 invokes Petrarch’s heightened vision of Laura, who like Dante’s Beatrice, embodies the Eternal Feminine in Divine Love. Stevenson’s natural fluency and layered voicing proves graciously effective, again mediated by pregnant silences.
Victor Hugo provides the impetus for this “Reading after Dante,” in which Dante and Virgil tour the first two levels of God’s justice: Inferno and Purgatory. A series of tritones opens the Sonata, a musical equivalent to the abandonment of all hope at the gates of Hell. Chromatic pulsations suggest the fiery torments of the damned, who writhe and fly asunder at the howling incendiary winds of Hell. Stevenson keeps excellent tension on the various lines and thick chords that evolve into a stentorian chorale, an Ave Maria in the midst of eternal despair. Typical of Liszt’s “transformation of theme” technique, the figures gain spiritual ascendancy as Purgatorio systematically casts of each of the Seven Deadly Sins so Dante and Virgil might rise to the Garden of Eden. There, Beatrice will guide Dante to the F-sharp Major Paradiso (in perfect fifths) denied the pagan Virgil, who lived under the sign of Caesar and whose bonds to Reason prove insufficient to compensate for the regions open to Faith. Stevenson’s immaculate, pearly play in the pianissimo and then fortissimo of the Paradiso quite competes with the classic readings of this score by Bar-Ilan, Bolet, and Berman.
From Liszt’s Swiss Year, Stevenson performs two water pieces: At the Lake of Wallenstadt and Near a Brook, each with its literary counterpart in Byron and Schiller, respectively. Byron’s sentiment parallels the spirit of Thoreau, that Nature provides a shelter from a “wild world.” The piano seems to bubble a limitless fluid energy, distilled in spiritual idylls. Few can compete with Wilhelm Kempff’s famed rendition of Au bord d’une source, but Stevenson applies a lustily scintillating series of colors to her keyboard palette most gratifying. Lastly, from the Third Year’s sojourn to the Villa d’Este, whose enchanted fountains purl from everywhere in mystical curlicues, there arises the venerable thought of St. John that these waters pale before that “well of water springing up into everlasting life.” Piano sound excellently engineered by Adam Binks makes for Liszt fervently rendered.
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