Saturday, 8 June 2013

Review: Liszt - Annees de Pelerinage - Aldo Ciccolini - 1961-69, EMI



Still one of the finest recordings out there – even after 50 years!

Amazing as it may seem, it is quite true. Except for Venezia e Napoli (recorded in September 1969), all the rest of the cycle was recorded in the end of 1961. More than 50 years ago! I still find it hard to believe that such an early stereo recording could capture piano sonority so vividly and with such depth and clarity, yet it did. The sound alone on these two CDs puts to shame recordings made decades later, including many a digital one. The mystery becomes a little easier to explain when we look at the recording location, the Salle Wagram in Paris, and especially at the people behind the technical details: producer René Challan and recording engineer Paul Vavasseur, both of them with impeccable reputation in their fields.

Another reason, albeit a minor one, for the splendid sound may have to do with the choice of piano. Nowhere on the cover is it written what kind Aldo Ciccolini used for that recording, but in his late years, as obvious from YouTube, he preferred – and still does! – Bechstein, and I might venture a claim that it is exactly this gem of piano which he used more than 50 years ago in Paris; certainly it doesn't sound like Steinway and this is all for the better. But the sound, beautiful and vivid and transporting in the concert hall as it may be, is of course a mere detail, a kind of bonus to the real stuff.

What makes this performance
a classic is Aldo Ciccolini himself. And a classic it most definitely is. I have listened only to two other complete recordings of this magisterial cycle – and there seem to be but a few more on the market – and I can safely say that Aldo Ciccolini is totally superior to both Leslie Howard on Hyperion (digital) and Lazar Berman on DG (late analogue), to the latter embarrassingly so. Besides, Ciccolini's fairly fast tempi fit the whole cycle, all 26 pieces of it, perfectly on two well-filled discs. Judging from the few pieces he has left, Arrau wouldn't have been any match for Ciccolini either, even if he had recorded the complete cycle. There remain, of course, Bolet's superb DECCA recordings from the 1980s, an incomparable Lisztian if there ever was one, but he unfortunately recorded only the first two ''years'' complete; from the late ''third year'' he did record only the The Fountains of Villa d'Este. But even if Jorge had recorded the cycle complete, he might at best have equalled the vastly different, yet equally valid, renditions of Ciccolini. Being a huge fan of the Cuban-American, this is actually the finest compliment to the Italian-French Aldo Ciccolini I could possibly pay. Is this mixed origin by way of being, partly at least, reason for so fine an interpretation of Liszt's decidedly cosmopolitan cycle? Ah, well, this is surely much too fanciful to be taken seriously.

Tracks and recording details
Now let's look more carefully at this particular recording, mostly made more than 50 years (!) ago, if I may remind you. The first thing to notice is that Aldo Ciccolini is a stupendous technician. He is rather on the fast side and he plays the most horrendously difficult pieces with supreme ease; one might almost think that Vallee d'Obermann or Orage are suitable for beginners. The second and far more important thing to notice is that Aldo Ciccolini is a very fine musician indeed. He does take some parts of the Petrarch Sonnets and especially of the Dante Sonata (13:44 overall timing, one of the fastest on record) a little in a hurry, that's true, but he is supremely convincing. Moreover, there is never any banging or ugly sound or distortion of melodic lines in Ciccolini's playing. Far from it. Even the most furious passages remain under firm control, never is anything unmusical allowed. The man's an aural aesthete.

There are at least three pieces which Aldo Ciccolini in fact owns, much as I detest using this word in this context. These are the beautiful Alpine bells of the opening piece (La chapelle de Guillaume Tell), probably the most tempestuous storm ever composed for solo piano (Orage), and the overwhelmingly beautiful evening prayer to your guardian angel (Angelus) – and in any other of the rest 23 pieces Ciccolini is indeed in a class of his own. And he can easily stand comparison with anybody, if you insist on such things. Some people may rightly require slower tempi in the Sonnets, but I think that the somewhat faster ones – but never rushed! – employed here do underline the burning passion of Petrarch's immortal words. In fact, Aldo Ciccolini seems to be that rare kind of pianist who combines in his playing fabulous technical resources and fine musicianship. To take but another random example, the outer parts of his Tarantella have to be heard to be believed, but the middle section is a miracle of singing piano tone. To say nothing of Gondoliera, or Egloguе, or Au lac de Wallenstadt, or... you got the picture, didn't you?

The funny thing is that I don't particularly like Ciccolini's much more celebrated recordings of Debussy and I can hardly stand his Chopin and his Mozart. But in Liszt the man is tremendous! I suppose his highly idiosyncratic style may not be to everybody's taste, but for my money Ciccolini delivers the goods splendidly. It is not often that I hear so fine a combination of bravura and sensitivity, and in music which is so criminally under-played and under-recorded such as the complete Années de pèlerinage. It must be stressed that the all pieces from the separate ''years'' really should be listened to together and in the order in which Liszt put them; one might be surprised how well they fit together. What's more, when viewed in toto, the whole cycle is a most eloquent testimony both to the fascinating complexity of Liszt's personality as well as to his remarkable, to say the least, development as a composer. The vastness of the Swiss landscapes in the ''first year''; the power of the masterpieces created by Raphael's brush, Michelangelo's chisel or Petrarch's pen in the ''second year''; the brooding cypresses of Villa d'Este and the vivacious playfulness of its fountains; all that is captured by Aldo Ciccolini with unsurpassed power, brilliance and poetry.

Back cover inside
It's a damned shame that this priceless recording is out of print, at least separately. The good news is that it can be found complete as a part of Aldo Ciccolini's box-set* entirely dedicated to Liszt and still very much in print, to say nothing of its almost indecently cheap price. Besides, if you lay your hands on this box set, you get as a special bonus three well-filled discs more, all of them full of fine and splendidly recorded of many a neglected masterpiece. Even if it the rest of Ciccolini's Liszt recordings are not quite on par with his stunning recording of the Années, the five-disc collection still remains a fine bargain. And if you are not a fan of box-sets (and if you have money to burn), but insists on having your CDs in the good old jewel cases, you may rest assured – if you are a committed Lisztian! – that this double CD is worth every single cent you are going to spend on it.

* The recording date in the booklet of the box-set is given as ''XI-XII.1962'', the same months but one year later than the date given in the booklet of the separate edition. Go figure! It doesn't really matter, though. The recording is an exceptional sonic achievement either way.

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