CD Review by Andrea Bedetti in Musicvoice March 9th, 2019 – “Liszt: Les harmonies de l’esprit”
March 9, 2019

Artistic judgment 4/5

If we were to subdivide roughly the life and musical work of Franz Liszt, we would realize that his existential and artistic parable follows that which marks the thought and life of one of the greatest philosophers of the nineteenth century, Søren Kierkegaard, who was the same age of the Hungarian composer and pianist (if Liszt is from 1811, Kierkegaard was born two years later, but died before, in 1855, unlike the musician, who died more than thirty years later, in 1886). At first in Aut-Aut and then in Fear and tremor, the Danish philosopher proposed that the life of a man can be enclosed in three existential “spheres”, the “aesthetic” one, the “ethical” one and the “religious” one, which can be also experimented with all of them, as happened to Kierkegaard, who then passed from the aesthetic sphere to the ethical one, to conclude his parable with the religious one.

As far as Liszt’s life is concerned, it is possible to do this, considering the period from 1825 to 1840 (ie when he started performing around Europe until he met Schumann and Wagner) and can be enclosed in the “aesthetic sphere”, the period from 1844 to 1862 (from the end of his relationship with Marie d’Agoult until the death of his first daughter Blandine), the one that falls within the “ethical sphere” and, finally, the lapse of time which goes from 1865 to 1886 (since he received tonsure and minor orders until his death in the Vatican), the period that goes under the “religious sphere”.

Starting from this subdivision, it is extremely interesting to talk about the last recording made by the pianist Cosentino Ingrid Carbone, who recorded for the Da Vinci Classics a CD that presents works that belong, following the aforementioned fencing, to the so-called “middle ground” of Lisztian life and work, that is his “ethical sphere”, with passages such as Après une lecture du Dante (dating back to 1849), Consolations, six pensées poétiques (also from the same year), the famous third Liebestraum (O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst!), written in 1850, and the second of the two Legends, namely St. Francois de Paule: marchant sur les flots (composed between 1862 and 1863). To better understand the mechanisms of the “ethical sphere”, Kierkegaard explains in Aut-Aut that man can decide to change type of existence, passing from the aesthetic life to the ethical one, in which he can live according to moral ideals, as well as having the ability to take on his responsibilities. This action allows him to choose between good and evil, accepting the fundamental role of the family (in the role of the “husband”) and of work, taking on the shoulders also the weight of possible sacrifices to ensure that he can respect these ethical constraints . Thus, if the figure of the “seducer” (incarnation of the “aesthetic sphere”) lives only moment by moment, thus losing himself, that of the “husband” makes him build his own personality, choosing the continuity of time in which he only reaffirms his choice from “seducer” to “husband”.

With a sort of Plutarchian operation, we can thus make Kierkegaard’s life parallel with that of Liszt, if we consider not only the passage involving both the great Danish philosopher and the Hungarian composer and pianist from the “seductive” phase (aesthetic) to the “marital” (ethical) one, with the first deciding to leave Regina Olsen and the second Marie d’Agoult (who had previously abandoned her husband and two daughters to follow Liszt), but also with the adherence to a sphere through which to cease to conceive life as a sum of instants to accept, on the contrary, the conception of temporal continuity, giving rise to a more responsible and, precisely, “ethical” dimension of existence (remaining at the composer, in 1847 he started the romantic relationship with the princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein that he could not marry only for the fact that the latter did not get the annulment of the previous marriage, while in 1849, during the Dresden riots, the composer demonstrated his “ethical” altruism by helping the “revolutionary” Wagner find refuge in Switzerland).Thus Liszt, in these years, tends to progressively cancel the worldly aspect to give more time and importance to the creative-spiritual aspect and to conceive the instance of eros, understood in its Greek etymological meaning, more like a manifestation of agape, that is a more disinterested, universal love, which radiates from those who live Christianity actively and fideistically. And it is also the period that brings Liszt to the erotic change in favor of the heroic, which transpires, for example, in the creation of some symphonic poems like Les Préludes and Mazeppa, steeped in a purely literary romanticism. And it is, to stay within the relationship between music and literature, the moment of the creation of Après une lecture du Dante which, as we know, draws the inspirational motif from the Divine Comedy, one of the most revered poetic texts by Liszt, a page piano that draws from three distinct components of Dante’s masterpiece: the infernal dimension, the supplication of the damned locked up in the various groups and the episode of the forbidden love of Paolo and Francesca (at an allegorical level, three moments that speak volumes about the passage from the phase “Aesthetic” to the “ethical” one, with the obsessive presence of the tritone, the diabolus in musica, which characterizes the main theme on descending octaves). The reading that makes Ingrid Carbone place the attention, or rather the accent, on a dimension that, however, has nothing to do with heroism, preferring instead to dip the nib of the interpretation in the inkwell of the dawn of a new spirituality; his agogic is not passionate, titanic, as often happens to listen, but based on a sound that can be defined almost “raped”, fixed in the darkness of the surrounding space (the use of pedals is never exaggerated), transforming in fact this work in an “ethical” research to which Liszt turns to draw from the light of a spiritual sense of which he felt an inescapable need that went beyond the mere artistic matter to explore the eschatological mysteries. Here, then, that the sound evoked by the Cosentine interpreter is the fruit of this eschatology, a sound reflection that investigates, through Dante’s episodes, the mystery of death, the affliction given by sin, the search for a forbidden and absolute love that leaves the chthonic of eros to rise to the empyrean of agape (the passage dedicated to the episode of Paolo and Francesca is rendered agogically by Ingrid Carbone as a sort of timbre mantra, “resonant”, enveloping in its tenuous crystallinity made of shine which becomes matter, in which desire is purified in the idealistic regret of love not lived in the name of a greater and absolute love, the one eminently arising from the folds of spirituality).

From here I can guess why the Calabrian artist wanted to tackle this page and the others of the engraving in question with a Bechstein A-228, a courageous choice since this instrument must sometimes be tamed by its mechanics and of the “extreme” sound that expresses both in the acute register and in the grave register; a choice that makes us understand how Ingrid Carbone symbolically wanted to make more marked, at least in the Après une lecture du Dante, the “kingdom of infernal darkness” through the low register and the “kingdom of divine light” with the acute one (the trill expressed and reminiscent of Paolo and Francesca at the end of the page it is symptomatic of this allegorical power, a warning and a forgiveness at the same time, before the gates of hell are closed again on the massive serious and solemn agreements).

Also in 1849 the Consolations, six pensées poétiques, date back to the final version, whose title probably refers to the homonymous poetic collection of Joseph Delorme, pseudonym used by Charles Sainte-Beuve, published nineteen years before, but whose poetic counterpart can also involve the most famous poetic collection of Novalis, the six Hymnen an die Nacht, which represent a deeply lived heroic-philosophical-religious experience, able to exalt who experiences it to undertake a spiritual path that leads to winning the idea of ​​death. At the same time, however, we must not forget, even at the executive level, that these six short passages seem to have an ideal point of reference with Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte.

Another composition, therefore, that reflects the “ethical” dimension evoked by Kierkegaard, together with the image of a tenuous méditation poetique by Lamartine memory; pianistically, a mix that includes the sense of memory, of spiritual meditation, of a sentimental languor in which, at times, the concept of eros has the upper hand over that of agape, in addition to the image of a reparatory consolation in Christian terms . How does Ingrid Carbone interpret them? With a scan that chooses from time to time the presence or absence of a phrase that is a symbol of union or fracture in its absence, as happens in the very short Andante with initial motion or that is realized rhythmically in the second Consolation (A little more moved) , whose time dilation must be made without debasing the entire system. And with the concept of the Traum, of dream, which dominates the third Consolation (Lento placido), the Cosentina pianist conceives a timbre liquidity that allows to express a rarefied, crystalline phrasing, without falling into the dull and the sickly (the work of connection with the left hand is a balm for the development of the right one). The choral gait of the fourth (Almost Adagio), seems to echo the Lutheran Amen from Dresden present in Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony, which Ingrid Carbone exalts with a hieratic and solemn sense, while maintaining its expressive sweetness. A rarefied sweetness that the Calabrian interpreter does not abandon in the fifth Consolation (Andantino), in which the eloquence is imbued with sad remembrances that are only dissolved with the last Consolation (Allegretto cantabile), whose cantabile seems to truly recall the human voice and that the pianism of the artist from Cosenza manages to unravel with a veil of subtle magic, managing to camouflage those virtuosistic cues that refer for a moment to the “aesthetic” sphere of the first Liszt.

As for the Liebestraum (O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst!), Before entering into the execution in question, it deserves a clarification premise; his being (apparently) sugary and dull has always involved interpretative misunderstandings. This is because the piece was shelved by the greatest pianists of the twentieth century, apart from Arrau, since it had to pay the price of being an exquisitely “sentimental” page, almost a “light music” piece disguised as classical contours for use and consumption of very easy palates; moreover, this reputation is based on a gross misunderstanding that derives from the title itself, Dream of Love, which suggests a passage in which a present feeling hovers, experienced by a man and a woman with an abundant dose of romanticism. In reality, this Liebestraum was transcribed from a lyric for song and piano, on verses by Ferdinand Freiligrath, written in 1845; let’s be clear, of tragic inspiration as they sing the loss of a loved one, anticipating a poetic dimension that is closer to decadence rather than romanticism tout court. After all, more than a dream of love, it is the translation of a funeral march and as such must be expressed, just as Ingrid Carbone does in the phrasing that does not let itself go to decidedly out of place re-flowering, as if they were accompanying a video on the figurines Liebig d’antan; a poignant, melancholic funeral march, interwoven with piercing regrets on which to channel the timbral impulses that appear in the middle of the piece. A song, in short, to be interpreted looking back.

That Liszt drew not only from literary but also pictorial themes is a well-known and acquired thing and the second of the two Legends, St. Francois de Paule: marchant sur les flots, is a clear demonstration of this, given that the Hungarian composer took inspiration for this extraordinary page after being strongly impressed by a painting by the German painter Eduard Jakob von Steinle, one of the greatest exponents of the mid-nineteenth century Nazarene movement, which depicted this miracle (according to legend, Francesco da Paola, not having the money to be ferried from a boatman to cross the strait of Messina, he managed to do so by spreading his cloak as if it were a small boat).

This piece needs a great deal of control, especially with the left hand, starting from a melodic phrase that is taken up with ever increasing strength, without however transforming the reading into an act of Titanism that would be difficult to reconcile with the meekness of the saint, but who instead to exalt the strength of faith (which reaches its climax in the final part, when a Lento takes over, which is almost an invitation to reflection and meditation). The interpretative sensitivity that Ingrid Carbone demonstrates is confirmed by the fact that the crescendo timbric progression is fully respected without resorting to impulses, but starting from half-tones that little by little give the impression (ie the representation) of the mantle of the saint that ferries Francesco da Paola on the waters of the strait, overcoming the physical forces of nature. A progression that is precisely interrupted by the irruption of the Slow, unraveled with emotion and emotion, before the left hand takes up the “Gregorian” gait that leads the song to the closing, and that the Calabrian artist decides not to close resorting to a fff, but to a more collected and meditative ff.

If the readings of the Cosentina pianist are therefore fully convincing, the painful notes come from the technical side of the recording. So it has already been said, Ingrid Carbone recorded the record with a Bechstein A-228, a rocky piano, which plays a lot on the contrast between the low register (very dark) and the high register (particularly bright) and which recalls, in a certain meaning, the legendary Érard pianos, beloved by Liszt, with a more powerful timbre than the “competitors” Pleyel, loved by Chopin. The problem with the Bechstein, as with the Bösendorfer, is that it is difficult to capture their sound, as if the mic is not ideally positioned, the low register tends to “rumble”, while the high register causes, due to its crystallinity thrust, a “metallic” effect, saturating the highs and causing imperfections as regards the parameter of tonal balance. And this is exactly what happened with the sound in question (and this I was able to verify both by listening to the sound tracks with the professional solid-state theater system, and with the desk-top sound system). Although the sound stage sees the instrument recreated in the center of the speakers, although very close, both detail and dynamics are inevitably affected by the opposing registers which tend to saturate the sound space, impoverishing the audiophile side.

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