courtesy of PIAS
Here in San Francisco pianist Cédric Tiberghien is probably best known as the piano accompanist for violinist Alina Ibragimova. The two of them have given recitals for San Francisco Performances, the most recent of which took place in April of 2017. They have also built up an impressive library of recordings on the Hyperion label; and my last encounter with one of their Hyperion releases took place in August of 2013 with the release of a two-CD album of the complete works for violin and piano by Franz Schubert.
At the beginning of next month, Tiberghien will make his San Francisco debut as a concerto soloist, performing with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). He will play Franz Liszt’s first piano concerto in E-flat major, working with conductor François-Xavier Roth, who will similarly be making his SFS conducting debut. That performance will take place a little over a month after the release of Tiberghien’s latest solo album for Hyperion, which was devoted entirely to Liszt. However, while the concerto was completed in 1849 when Liszt was at the peak of his career as a virtuoso pianist, all of the compositions that Tiberghien recorded were completed during the final decade of Liszt’s life, roughly 35 years later.
This was not a good time for Liszt. A variety of different illnesses were catching up with him; and, on the basis of some of his correspondence, one might also be inclined to diagnose clinical depression. Nevertheless, he kept composing; and the results suggest that he was determined to explore new approaches to invention that would experiment with alternative techniques of logic and grammar to throw new light on his consistently expressive rhetoric.
One of the earliest efforts in this regard was the third “year” in his Années de pèlerinage (years of pilgrimage) cycle of three suites for solo piano. This final collection is not labeled with the name of a country that the “pilgrim” has visited. Two of the movement titles are in Latin, “Sunt lacrymae rerum” (there are tears for things) and “Sursum corda” (lift up your hearts); and the title of the first piece is “Angelus! Prière aux anges gardiens” (Angelus! Prayer to the Guardian Angels). There is also a funeral march dedicated to the memory of the emperor Maximilian I of Mexico. Furthermore, his two “tone poems” evoking the cypresses at the Villa d’Este are both identified as threnodies and composed in minor keys. Even his major-key evocation of the Villa d’Este fountains comes with a Latin inscription from the Gospel of John.
All seven of the “third year” pieces constitute the second half of Tiberghien’s album. They are preceded by six of the short pieces that Liszt subsequently composed. With the exception of the second of the “La lugubre Gondola” compositions, evoking the funeral of Richard Wagner, all of these pieces are less than five minutes in duration. All of them explore ambiguity in ways that go beyond Wagner at his most adventurous. Indeed, given that the title of the first track of the album is “Bagatelle sans tonalité” (bagatelle without tonality), one could almost make the case that the dying Liszt was in the process of beginning work on the bridge that would link Wagner to the Second Viennese School.
Where any Liszt is concerned, my highest priority as a listener is one of clarity. Whether we are dealing with the tightly intense gestures of the fourth (and last) of the “Mephisto” waltzes or the sprawling excesses of the E-flat major concerto, I feel it is always important to accept that any note Liszt committed to paper was put there for a reason. Since I am familiar with many (but not all) of the selections on Tiberghien’s latest album, I am happy to report that he brings a highly informative clarity to both his technique and his rhetorical expressiveness. It is as if he wants us to pay more attention to the composer than to the performer; and, for the repertoire on this new album, there will always be new rhetorical corners for the attentive listener to explore. Whether or not Tiberghien approaches the concerto the same way will be revealed here in San Francisco in a little over two weeks’ time!