Going through performances of Liszt's Years of Pilgrimage
that I have heard in the past, they all seem to me to be
very dry performances, dry bones. I think the reason is
simply that throughout the 20th century the piano works of
Liszt were taken as technical showpieces, much as Paganini's
Caprices, with little thought as to the deep musical thinking
contained in the works. Recently I came across a relatively
new set of Books 1 and 2 performed by Libor Nocacek. Even
just listening to a few sound samples from the albums I was
impressed. And so, not having many months left in the Liszt
bi-centennial year, I decided to go ahead and buy Book 2 Italy.
These are simply wonderful. Novacek's renderings are very
melodious, poetic, and without affectation, with the technical
aspects kept into the background. If previous performances I
had heard were dry bones, Novacek's Book 2 is like a walk
through a warm summer shower by a man (Liszt) who has
a lot on his mind.
The opening "Sposalizio" is gorgeous. Novacek brings every
nuance forward, but without exaggeration. And the concluding
chords of the piece are — well, there just can't really be
any description for that one. I think that even one listen
of "Sposalizio" is enough to make a convert of anyone right
from the beginning of the album. And in the "Canzonetta del
Salvator Rosa" he reminds me of Charles Rosen, adept at
bringing out the structural elements of the piece.
As for the three Sonnets after Petrarch, they are also
very poetic, wonderfully phrased, with a sure touch to the
keys. But Novacek makes them intellectually fascinating,
not just beautiful. Which is something very much different
than the versions I had heard before of pieces which, in
my early years, didn't seem to register at all with me
due to lack of that content.
But the true test was of course the last piece of the set,
usually known just as the "Dante Sonata." Here Novacek
follows Liszt, like Dante following Virgil, in a mad rush up
to a precipice, a journey down into dark, rock-strewn
ravine, up into the clouds to gaze upon the redemptrix
Beatrice, though fields of thorns and woods sent fire
by human folly. The Dante Sonata is in my opinion one
of the finest pieces for piano in all of Romanticism.
And Novacek truly shows why that is the case.
My only criticism of the album in the choice of the
Mephisto Waltz No. 1 to conclude it. I have to admit
that the Waltz is not one of my favorite pieces. But
I can say that Novacek's performance of it is a definite
upgrade on the performance I have with Leslie Howard.
Nevertheless, I wonder why Novacek did not finish off
instead with one of the pieces from Venezia e Napoli,
which is much more thematically related.
Reviewing Novacek's companion recording of Book 1
Switzerland, Patrick Rucker writes: "As one listens to
‘Chapelle de Guillaume Tell’ played by Berman, Brendel
or Ciccolini, the mind wanders and the rhetorical gesture,
inaccurately rendered, sounds vapid. As Novacek delivers
it, we understand, metaphorically speaking, precisely
what Liszt is talking about." I think that can be said
also for Book 2 Italy.
Eventually of course we may see the Years of Pilgrimage
recorded by Valentina Lisitsa, the greatest interpreter
of Liszt today. And we may have to wait a good number
of years for that. But that's okay. Listening to these works
played by Novacek we do not have to be too awfully sad
in the waiting.
Libor Novacek, Liszt,
Years of Pilgrimage Book 1: Switzerland, S. 160,
"La Chapelle de Guillaume Tell."