This superb Hyperion issue is Cédric Tiberghien’s first foray into Liszt, and he has gone in at the deep end. Tiberghien has form in uncompromising repertoire, and he encourages you to hear, at the end of his long life, how Liszt in his final years – having channelled the romance, individualism and high ideals of music in the nineteenth-century – prepared the way for the atonality of the Second Viennese School, the exploratory textures of Debussy’s piano music, even the fervent imagery of Messiaen.
The first six works here were all composed near the end of Liszt’s life (1811-86), and the seven pieces of the Années de pèlerinage (troisième année) from a decade earlier were published only in 1883. There are a couple of well-known compositions, La lugubre gondola and, from pèlerinage, ‘Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este’, and there are distracted re-workings of the bravado version of the Mephisto Waltz, but otherwise the music is often pared back to stark, single lines, is heavily chromatic, and desolate, deeply personal and secretive.
Throughout, the ghost of his son-in-law Wagner flickers in the contour of a phrase or an anguished harmony familiar from Tristan or Parsifal, and the shadow of ‘last things’ is ever-present. Even the rapture of ‘Les jeux d’eaux’ comes with a glorious sense of its own evanescence.
The recording makes clear the consistency of Tiberghien’s control of focus and tonal range, but it is more the ease with which he gets beneath the surface of these troubled, elusive pieces that makes it mark with a strong illusion of improvisatory directness. In the two ‘Aux cyprès’ threnodies, Tiberghien guides them towards a puzzling sense of emptiness, which he then compounds in a relentlessly bleak account of ‘Sunt lacrymae rerum’ (translated clumsily as “There are tears in the affairs of this life”).
This release is as much to do with Tiberghien’s marvellous playing as with his acutely tuned intelligence and artistry – this really is music from the edge.