The first volume of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, Suisse, was compiled over two decades, but most of the pieces were originally conceived when the 24 year-old Liszt lived in Switzerland with his mistress Countess d’Agoult. The nine evocative pieces, beginning with Chapelle de Guillaume Tell and ending with Les cloches de Genève, form a highly romantic narrative and are not as overtly virtuosic as many of his other pyrotechnical works.

© Susie Ahlberg
© Susie Ahlberg

This was the first time I had heard Ashley Wass play Liszt – he is often associated with performing twentieth-century British works – but he gave a totally committed performance, pacing the whole cycle with conviction. Interestingly, his interpretation seemed to emphasize the more contemplative side of this music – perhaps it was the overall choice of tempi, but he made the work sound as if the composer was looking back nostalgically to his past memories. Personally, I would have preferred a more full-on youthful and romantic approach, but taken as a whole, Wass’s approach was convincing on the day.

Wass showed admirable control of dynamic range throughout, and in the first piece, Chapelle de Guillaume Tell, he brought out the grandeur of the opening chords, evoking the significance of this nationalistic hero. On the other hand, I felt that his handling of Au lac de Wallenstadt was somewhat weak: perhaps it was the slowish tempo, but the left hand figures depicting the waves lacked fluidity and it just did not flow. He was more successful in the other aquatic piece, Au bord d’une source, which had a beautiful lilting feel. In vivid contrast, he then plunged into Orage, portraying the tempestuousness of the Alpine storm brilliantly.

The centerpiece of this work is unquestionably Vallée d’Obermann. Unlike the other pieces, it is based not on nature or landscapes but on a fictional character in a novel by Sénancour, hence its more introspective mood. Wass’s contemplative approach worked well in this piece and he imbued the expansive first section with nostalgic longing. In the slower sections, the music seemed to lose tension at times, but the build-up to the final dramatic climax was impressive. Two folk-inspired pieces followed: the light-hearted Églogue would have been more effective if played more simply, but Le mal du pays, another nostalgic piece based on a lonely Alphorn melody, was movingly performed. Wass concluded the work with a lyrical account of Les cloches de Genève – the bells framing a quintessentially Lisztian cantabile middle section.

The performance was hugely appreciated by the Wigmore Hall audience who kept silent for a full ten seconds as the last note died away. We were all – above all the pianist himself – emotionally drained, but at the same time we were filled with a wondrous sense of contentment which the best of Liszt’s music can bring us.