, December 2007
Pianists Bresciani and Nicolosi formed the Franz Liszt Piano Duo in 1998 to advance the cause of Liszt’s two piano transcriptions of his symphonic output. Their collaboration began with arrangements of the Goethe-inspired Faust Symphony, S.108 (1854; rev. 1857) and continued with the Dante. The duo’s repertoire includes Liszt’s transcription for two pianos of his symphonic poems and the two piano arrangements of Wagner’s operas made by Liszt and his pupils.
Liszt together with his mistress Marie d’Agoult read widely. They, like many others, became inspired by the epic poem Commedia (c.1310-14) later known as The Divine Comedy written by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) the famous Italian poet and writer. Liszt in 1839 started work on the piano piece fragment dantesque in an attempt to portray Dante’s world in music. D’Agoult wrote to Henri Lehmann in 1839 from the fishing village of San Rossore stating that Liszt had begun work on the fragment dantesque,“which is sending him to the very devil.” Several weeks later Liszt gave the première of the fragment in Vienna. It seems that its manuscript went missing and it was only after 1849 when living in Weimar that Liszt reworked the music as the seventh piece of his Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage, 2nd year, Italian volume) with the title of Après une Lecture de Dante: Fantasia Quasi Sonata (After a Reading of Dante: Fantasia Quasi Sonata).
Widely known today as the Dante Sonata the substantial single movement work is considered one of Liszt’s most daunting piano scores. In this case we have an arrangement for two pianos by Vittorio Bresciani; without a composition date given. Liszt approved no programme for the Dante Sonata apart from the brief title of Après une Lecture de Dante (After a Reading of Dante: Fantasia Quasi Sonata).
Widely known today as the Dante Sonata the substantial single movement work is considered one of Liszt’s most daunting piano scores. In this case we have an arrangement for two pianos by Vittorio Bresciani; without a composition date given. Liszt approved no programme for the Dante Sonata apart from the brief title of Après une Lecture de Dante (After a Reading of Dante). According to biographer Alan Walker, “The Dante Sonata remains one of Liszt’s unique creations, little played and little understood for a half a century after its initial publication in 1858.” Neglected for many years a quick google has shown that there are now several versions of the Dante Sonata available although, it is programmed a lot more sparingly by performers in recital.
From the outset Bresciani and Nicolosi establish an atmosphere of dark foreboding which develops in intensity and suggests the entrance to hell. At 5:19 a calmer mood prevails - evocative of a love scene between Paolo and Francesca. From 8:24 the weight and tempo increases as the Devil’s influence is observed. Unsettling, stormy music takes centre-stage between 9:38 and 12:09 before running a calmer course from 12:10. From 13:25 the duo convey an innate feeling of hope that then builds to a spirited conclusion.
After meeting Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein in 1847, Liszt’s interest in Dante’s Divine Comedy was once again ignited. It was during his Weimar years (1848-61) that he composed many of his finest works: the Sonata for Piano in B minor, S.178 (1852-53); A Faust Symphony, S.108 (1854, rev. 1857) and the Dante Symphony, S.109 (1855-57). Although Liszt had had sketches of the Dante Symphony in his folder as far back as the 1840s he only resumed work on it in 1855 completing the score in 1857. In 1859 he prepared this arrangement for two pianos.
It seems that the orchestra was seriously under-rehearsed when Liszt conducted the première of this difficult score. Reports indicate an embarrassingly inadequate performance at Dresden in 1857. Dedicated to Richard Wagner, the Dante Symphony depicts the romantic tale of struggle and redemption that traces Dante’s journey from Hell through Purgatorio. Wagner suggested to Liszt that it was impossible for a mere mortal to convey the heavenly wonders of Paradise. It consists of two sections/movements: the Inferno and the Purgatorio. At Wagner’s behest, Liszt avoids a Paradise movement and instead offers a substantial finale entitled Magnificat. This entails a chorus of angels set for female or children’s voices. Liszt gave a performance of his two piano version of the Dante Symphony in 1866 at the Paris home of artist and illustrator Gustave Doré with Camille Saint-Saëns as his partner.
In the opening Inferno Bresciani and Nicolosi open proceedings with chilling music in which they bring out a real sense of menace. A change of mood at 6:40 comes as welcome respite. Tranquil, light and amorous, this feels like music for the lovers Paolo and Francesca. The romantic mood gradually lessens and for a section between 9:37-10:48 one senses an underlying tension. Between 12:04 and 14:19 there is an especially lovely passage, full of passion and affection. From 14:20 a change of mood is discernable, gradually developing in weight and drama into a terrifying evocation of the fires of Hell.
Containing several rising figures the Purgatorio movement begins in relative tranquillity, representing the promise of hope and redemption. From 6:59 one feels a darker hue to the music. At 10:47 the music becomes more optimistic and at 11:52 the writing has a hymn-like character. From 13:00 a deep ecclesiastical quality prevails. The Magnificat links directly from the Purgatorio without a pause. The penitential-sounding children’s choir from Hungarian Radio under their conductor Gabriella Thész convey an ethereal quality. At 3:12 the treble Barbara Szmodics offers a short but radiant solo bringing out its feeling of youthful vulnerability - a convincing supplication for redemption.
The Naxos recording made at the Italian Cultural Institute in Budapest has an exceptional combination of clarity and balance. The booklet notes from Keith Anderson provide most of the essential information. The duo demonstrate that they can handle the severe technical demands with aplomb and at the same time create a convincing sense of drama. They clearly have the music of Liszt in the blood.