Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage Suisse (published 1855) are not fictional imaginings conjured up at home but his responses, in music, to the alpine landscape and landmarks of Switzerland, which he visited with Marie d’Agoult during the period 1835-1839. While owing a great deal to the romantic poetry of Goethe and Byron (in particular Childe Harold), these are also musical ‘postcards’, and the landscape and places they describe can still be viewed and visited today.

Having just enjoyed another holiday in the French Alps, quite close to the places of Liszt’s peregrinations, it is easy to see how the landscape inspired him. Driving down the autoroute south of Dijon, the first intimation one has of a change in the landscape, from the dull, flat agricultural land of the French interior only occasionally relieved by sugar-beet processing plants and statuesque wind turbines, are the Jura mountains, but these are mere trifles compared to the soaring grandeur of the Alps, whose snowy peaks rise up around Geneva and its lake. One really begins to appreciate their awesomeness when one leaves the motorway to begin a 30 minute ascent up twisting mountain roads to one of the many villages and ski stations that nestle in the high valleys. With spring now underway, there are cowslips and other wild flowers in bloom, and streams, augmented by the melting snow, gush noisily down the slopes, rushing headlong to sea level.

The peaks and high slopes are still snow-covered and on a sunny day the snow glints and glistens like crystal. The sky is intensely blue, the sun, in the thinner mountain air, hot on one’s skin. After a few days in this glorious landscape, one feels refreshed and healthy, released from the smog and noise of the city. Franz and Marie probably felt the same.

Looking towards Mont Blanc, from Mont Chèry, France

The alpine landscape of today isn’t so different from the landscape Liszt encountered in the mid-nineteenth century. Approaching Switzerland from the east, he probably enjoyed the great peaks of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. Travel would have been far more difficult then, with few proper roads through the mountains, but local guides could be hired to take one on walking tours, and there were plenty of refuges and hostels for weary travellers to rest in at the end of a day spent hiking.

In ‘Pastoral’ Liszt evokes lush mountain pastures, wild flowers, birdsong and fauna, and the pleasure of being in such a landscape; while ‘Au Bord du Source’ describes a mountain stream, playfully carving its course towards the sea. ‘Au Lac de Wallenstadt’ vividly captures the image of a beautiful mountain lake, a light breeze ruffling its clear surface.

‘Orage’ describes the rapidly changing weather of the Alps: I’ve sat and watched a storm brewing in the opposite valley, dark clouds rolling in, the heavy sky scored with shards of lightning, and Liszt brilliantly captures the storm with unsettling chromatic scales in octaves, massive left-hand chords and cadenza-like passages.

‘Vallee d’Obermann’ is a more pensive and philosophical piece, and the place itself does not exist. Rather, the music is based on a romantic literary construct. Built on a simple descending figure, which is recapitulated many times throughout the piece, the music is both imposing and wistful, with its impressive double octaves, evoking the grandeur of the landscape, and graceful melodic lines.

‘Eclogue’ returns to the pastoral mood of the earlier pieces. Short and gentle, it evokes the joy of the dawning of a new day. In ‘Le mal du pays’ the homesickness of the traveller is evoked, tinged with depression and yearning, and a poignant farewell to country. Its ending, in the lower register, brings no relief from the melancholy mood. In the final piece of the suite, ‘Les cloches de Genève’, (‘The Bells of Geneva’) the music is less evocative of the sound of bells, but its mood, underlined by one of Liszt’s more romantic melodies, suggests joy and love, providing an antidote to the dark mood of the previous piece.

British pianist Peter Donohoe describes these pieces as ‘very personal and visual… highly emotional for composer, performer and audience’, and a good performance (such as Donohoe’s at the Southbank in February – review here) can be intense, romantic and highly concentrated. The works from the second year (Italy) are, by contrast, more concerned with literary and artistic impulses (a painting by Raphael, a sculpture by Michelangelo, the poetry of Petrarch) but are no less interesting and absorbing, to listen to and to play.

For a good recording of the complete Années de Pèerinage, look no further than Lazar Berman, though I also like Wilhelm Kempf, particularly in the three Petrarch Sonnets.

Today BBC Radio Three began a week-long Schubert-fest, called ‘The Spirit of Schubert’, to mark the 215th anniversary of Franz Peter Schubert’s birth. The season will attempt to get inside the music and mind of the man in c200 hours of continuous broadcasting. Live concerts, discussions, requests, a ‘Schubert Salon’ and ‘Schubert Lab’, this will surely be a “must” for Schubert fans and anyone who wants to explore his music further.

His music remains perennially popular, from the sunny, holiday moods evoked in the ‘Trout’ Quintet, to the serene beauty of ‘Ave Maria’, through the symphonies and string quartets, to the late works for piano and the great song cycle ‘Winterreise’. His music spins the agony of his desire, yet at every turn he draws back from the void, and surprises us with warm melodic lines, striking harmonic shifts, rich textures, dances and songs. There is sunshine, as well as darkness, in Schubert’s music.

For me there does not have to be a specific anniversary or reason to play or listen to Schubert’s music. I have loved and lived with his music all my life: as a young child hearing my father play Der Hirt Auf Dem Felsem (‘The Shepherd on the Rock’) on the clarinet, my own LP of the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony, my first encounters with the ‘Impromptus’ for piano in my mid-teens, as a precocious, know-it-all student who could play the notes, but who understood little of where this music came from.

On my iPod I have a playlist called ‘Schubert Favourites’ – not some naff compilation torn from the front of ClassicFM magazine, but my own selection of my most favourite pieces of his music. One of my piano students, Ben, regularly asks me “Who’s your favourite composer, Fran?”, to which I always reply “Beethoven”(Beethoven is Ben’s favourite composer too!). I love Beethoven – for his wit and humour, his mercurial mood swings, and his sheer weirdness and unpredictably in his later works.  But I love Schubert too, though I find it hard to put my finger on exactly why I love his music so much. Maybe because it encompasses so much: the grandeur of Beethoven, a swooning romance which looks forward to Liszt, and beyond, the tenderness of Chopin at his most introspective and intimate?

From my Schubert Favourites list (in no particular order):

Impromptu No. 4 in A-flat Major. Allegretto

Der Hirt Auf Dem Felsen D. 965 (Op. 129)

Notturno

Fantasie in F minor D940 : I Allegro molto moderato

Quartettsatz in C Minor, D.703

Trout Quintet: Scherzo

Fantasy In C Major, D. 605a, “Grazer Fantasie”: I. Moderato Con Espressione

Piano Sonata No.21 in B flat, D.960 – 1. Molto moderato

Schubert: 3 Klavierstücke, D.946 – No.3 in C (Allegro)

Schubert links:

Spirit of Schubert on BBC Radio Three

Schubert’s Glasses

Schubert is needed now more than ever – article by Roger Scruton

Why Schubert? – article by Jessica Duchen

Schubert memorials in Vienna

Why Schubert’s music holds us in thrall – article by Ivan Hewett

Tenor Ian Bostridge in an excerpt from the film of ‘Winterreise’ by David Alden

Going back over old territory here, but by chance I found a film I made when I was rehearsing for my ATCL Diploma recital last winter with my page turner (who also happens to be a very good friend of mine, and one of my piano students). I’ve edited it into a more watchable programme. The pieces are played in the order in which I performed them in the exam recital on 14th December 2011

http://vimeo.com/38985321

 

Classical Musicians of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but other people’s prejudices that we are all stuffy, elitist and live in ivory towers.

Alexander Rodchenko

Classical Revolution takes classical music out of its traditional home of the concert hall, and into bars, cafes, clubs and other unusual venues to allow audiences to engage with the music and the musicians in new and alternative ways.

It was started in San Francisco in 2006 and has migrated to some 25 cities across Europe and the USA. Classical Revolution London is curated by energetic and innovative violinist Simon Hewitt Jones (the Road to Jericho project, Musbook, Music Teacher Map). Classical Revolution encourages both “indie” classical musicians and more established professional performers to showcase their work, and offers “open mic” sessions to allow up and coming performers the opportunity to present their music as well as headline acts and “chamber music jam sessions”. The informal presentation allows the audience to connect more closely with the music and musicians, to chat informally over a drink, and the opportunity to play with the musicians in the Chamber Music Jam sessions.

I am a huge fan of this kind of “democratisation” of classical music, which makes it more accessible to a wider audience, and breaks down stereotypes about classical music and classical musicians. Come and get to know us – we are mostly harmless!

The first event, on 23rd March, takes place at The Red Hedgehog, an intimate arts venue in Highgate, north London, and features pianist Christine Stevenson, playing Liszt.

More on the Classical Revolution London here