It was a gamble for pianist Aldo Ciccolini to play what he did Saturday night at Royce Hall. All-Liszt programs are rare these days, and certainly out-of-fashion. Add the fact that the program included not a single popular or familiar work by Liszt and you begin to have an idea of the magnitude of his wager.
Liszt’s ‘Harmonies poetiques et religieuses,” an extended 10-part collection virtually never performed in its entirety, was the solitary work on the agenda.
Pondered, composed and revised over a considerable span of time, from 1834-53, “Harmonies” was inspired by the religious poetry of Lamartine, some of which is quoted in the score. The work is unified not by thematic transformation, as in Liszt’s later works, but by the all-encompassing devotional and serious expression of its ideas.
The music shuns empty virtuosity. It builds toward momentous climaxes only to break out into noble hymns and solemn orations. “Funerailles,” the best-known piece in the collection, mounts to a shattering, Mahlerian funeral march. Prayers--a “Pater Noster,” an “Ave Maria,” simple transcriptions of choral works--dot the score. It’s somber, earnest music.
Ciccolini approached the work with utter conviction and technical finesse. Though the music often reaches grandiose heights, he wasn’t one for histrionics.
And it worked. Liszt’s sprawling score came vividly to life, its inspirational content devoutly rendered by Ciccolini, no apologies. The work deserves more hearings, and that was precisely Ciccolini’s point.