Originally conceived as songs for tenor, the piano versions of these pieces, which Liszt included in his second, Italian, year of his Années de Pélérinage, all retain a strong sense of the sung melodic line. All three are based on Sonnets, or Canzone, by the Italian Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374). They are meditations on love, specifically the poet’s passionate love for Laura de Noves. In the first, Benedetto sia ‘l giorno (Blessed be the day…., Canzone LXI, sometimes erroneously noted as Sonnet 104), he prays for divine blessing on the joys and sufferings of love. The second, Pace non trovo (I find no peace….. Canzone CXXXIV; sometimes erroneously noted as Sonnet 47) is more agitated. In it, the poet ponders the confused state love has put him in. Enthralled to his lady, he feels imprisoned yet free, he burns with love, yet feels he is made of ice: in modern psychological parlance, a true state of ‘limerence’. The third, I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi (I Beheld on Earth Angelic Grace…., Canzone CLVI; sometimes incorrectly listed as Sonnet 123), is an ardent love poem in which the poet describes the perfect beauty and purity of his love and its effect on all of Heaven and Nature.
In Liszt’s piano transcriptions, his extreme sensitivity to Petrarch’s original text allows him to beautifully capture the atmosphere and sentiment of Petrarch’s words, but they do not take their cues directly from the text (a comparison with the scores of the original song versions is useful when studying these works). Rather, they reflect Liszt’s own response to the poetry in the same way as earlier pieces in the Italian Années, ‘Spozalizio’ and ‘Il penseroso’, convey the composer’s response to a painting and a sculpture by Raphael and Michelangelo respectively.
The ‘Sonetto 123’ was my first serious foray into Liszt’s music (apart from half-hearted dabbles with the ‘Consolations’): within the first few bars – measures of ethereal, floating triplets – I was hooked. I am now learning the ‘Sonetto 47’.
Although the song versions were originally conceived for a high tenor voice, Liszt later adapted them for baritone. I find Thomas Quasthoff gives a fine reading of all three Sonneti. Here he is in the Sonetto 47, and here is tenor John Aler in the same work:
I’ve listened to several recordings of the Années during my study, and find Wilhelm Kempff’s readings of the Tre Sonetti hard to beat. Lazar Berman’s recording is also very fine, and Christine Stevenson’s new release of Italie (plus the ‘water’ pieces from Years 1 and 3) is notable for her very thoughtful and insightful approach, which perfectly highlights the dramatic structure of the pieces. Further information here.
The original song versions of the Tre Sonetti, including libretto, can be downloaded from IMSLP.