PLAYLIST #1 ~ TRACK 17
Jorge Bolet, piano
Romantically atmospheric to this day: Lake Wallenstadt (©MySwissAlps.com)
It was in Paris, probably around the beginning of 1833, that the 21-year-old Franz Liszt (1811–86) first met the formidable Comtesse Marie d’Agoult, seven years older and an interesting, independent-minded figure in her own right. One of those high-born nineteenth-century women not content with a life of quiet obedience, and bold enough do something about it, she was an intellectual and in later years a published writer (nom de plume Daniel Stern) – also the dedicatee, as it goes, of Chopin’s opus 25 Etudes. She and Liszt soon embarked on an intense relationship, though it apparently took a year for it to be consummated physically. They would live together for four years (1835–9), producing three children including one who became Richard Wagner’s redoubtable wife Cosima, though their bitter final separation would not come until 1844. In the first of their years together Liszt began the earliest of his three Années de pèlerinage (‘Years of pilgrimage’), collections of piano pieces drawing inspiration directly from his extensive travels around Europe. “Having recently travelled to many new countries,” he would write, “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.”
The first of Liszt’s ‘Years’ – one of the great piano cycles and a quite staggering achievement for such a young guy – is devoted to Switzerland, whence the pair had eloped (first to Basle, soon to Geneva) after Marie had become pregnant, a step too far for the most bohemian elements of respectable nineteenth century society. The phenomenon of nature in question in this suitably romantic second number of the set is the Walensee, one of the more scenic lakes in a country where competition for such an accolade is hot. The piece is a bewitching, song-like water miniature, full of what Marie described as “a melancholy harmony imitative of the sigh of the waves and the cadence of oars”. Just as I wrote earlier of the Couperin (Track 4), an antecedent in mood, “it sails serenely to its appointed conclusion without interruption or climax” on the gentle swell created by the rippling figure introduced at the outset and sustained throughout. The great Cuban-born Liszt specialist Jorge Bolet helms with all the skill and grace one could wish for.