F. Chopin
Etude A minor, op. 25/11

Santa Fe Listener

Now that Sony RCA is a European label with limited U.S. presence and a roster of artists who may be all but unknown here, I missed this album of Bk I of Liszt's panoramic Annees de Pelerinage. The music is devoted to his impressions of Switzerland, and here we get a superb Swiss pianist, 39-year-old Oliver Schnyder, who graduated from Zurich conservatory, came to America, and did graduate work including master classes with Leon Fleisher for three years. Nothing in that biographical sketch prepared me for how beautifully he plays this kaleidoscopic scene painting. I heard quite a lot of Annees during the Liszt bicentennial year, and right behind Nelson Freire's recital on Decca, Schnyder's is the most refined and personal album. This release was overshadowed by a complete Annees from Louis Lortie, but for me, Schnyder has much more to say.

It was so pleasurable to hear a pianist who can be spoken of in the same breath as Fleisher, gifted with a feeling for the Romantic piano tradition yet able to make his own mark. In Liszt''s cruelly challenging writing we've gotten used to technical whizzes where the fireworks dominate to such an extent that the music is lost, or cheapened. Here, with a good-sounding piano (although not an exceptionally beautiful one) and wide-ranging sound, Schnyder gives the impression that Bolet, Berman, Cziffra, and other Liszt specialist always aimed for, of an roantic personality who could evoke Liszt's temperament. (I think only Horowitz managed to electrify audiences to the same degree as Liszt, because he introduced danger and neurosis to slice through the claptrap.) The pitfall is hollow histrionics, which is why, when razzle-dazzle becomes fatiguing, one longs for the inward quality found in Richter, Ginzburg, and Freire.

Schnyder falls into that camp, as one can hear immediately from the way he handles the opening piece, Chapelle de Guillaume Tell, never getting rhetorical in the anthem-like melody but making it his own; I loved the echo of the bell across the lake. He is beautifully sensitive in Au bord d'une source and Au lac de Wallenstadt - these gentler pieces require a touch that can evoke rippling water and rapt serenity. The grand showpiece in the first half of Bk. I is Orage, which usually turns into a clattery depiction of thunder and lightning to no real purpose, but Schnyder phrases in such a way that the raging mountain storm conveys the emotion of awe it was meant to - this is music to accompany Turner's epic painting of Hannibal crossing the Alps.

The soul of the Suisse book lies in the somber, moody Valee d'Obermann, which Richter can be heard playing in only an early 50s live recital captured in dodgy sound. This apparently simple work, which for much of its length consists of resonant chords in the left hand and a simple, slow melody in the right, was a favorite of Horowitz's, and between his hypnotic, sophisticated approach (simplicity and sincerity were not the great Russian's natural territory) and a more direct but very well judged recording by Volodos, I found two satisfying models. Schnyder does very well - better than the sterile Brendel account on Philips - and I'd rank him high, although he becomes a bit aimless when he loses the through line by concentrating too much on what is going on from bar to bar. A harsher critic would carp that there is too much rubato and too little showmanship. The album ends with Liszt's two Legendes of St. Francis of Assisi, which pianists love for their delicacy and "spiritual" atmosphere - the quotation marks indicate my lifelong skepticism about the old devil's late-life religiosity. The relative hollowness of the music is to Schnyder's disadvantage, since his technique alone isn't enough to rival the incredible wizardry of a Horowitz or Cziffra.

Annees de Pelerinage is the Liszt I would take to a desert island, so no single pianist can encompass all three books, or even the entirety of any one book. Schnyder's refined account doesn't become an instant classic, yet it offers delight in hearing how much the music means to him - Liszt is never better than when meaning comes first.