Pianist Cecile Licad was born in the Philippines, and first came to prominence in this country when she won the Leventritt Award in 1981. Performing for the Steinway Society the Bay Area at the McAfee Center in Saratoga on Sunday evening, October 14, 2012, she made the unusual choice of devoting the first half of her program to Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage, Première Année Suisse, rarely heard in its entirety in live performance. Probably because of some unevenness of quality among the nine pieces – some of them sound more improvised than composed – Licad also made some unusual adjustments to the phrasing and dynamics. Yet the overall effect was spellbinding, holding the attention for a full hour, thanks to an uncommonly generous amount of very soft playing, with Licad demonstrating her ability to spin out some gorgeous long melodic lines.
Right from the start, the long opening notes of Chapelle de Guillaume Tell revealed that the Steinway piano in use was well tuned, with exceptionally long duration of the notes in the treble – later we heard some reverberations from the deep bass that sounded almost as persistent as from an organ pipe. The tone was a little on the bright side, but delightful in the gentle crystalline pieces, and the pianist quickly settled into the celebrated pair of A-flat water pieces – the placid Au Lac de Wallenstadt and the sparkling Au Bord d’une Source – separated by an imaginative Pastoral with the repeat of the two sections played in a daringly true ppp. Then we came to the most problematic movement, the very loud and tumultuous storm (Orage), where Liszt used crude octave scales and other means of producing noise. Rather than trying to make this sound better music than it is, Licad opted for fff with heavy pedaling to create a naturalistic blur, and one could even imagine an invisible orchestra onstage being overwhelmed by the thunderous piano. At Le Petit Trianon, this would have been a painful experience, but here in the more expansive acoustic of the McAfee Center, the contrast was quite successful. However, another structural problem that Liszt seems to have given to performers of the Swiss book is that Orage (much the noisiest movement) is followed by Vallée d’Obermann (much the longest) – almost a self-contained work, and itself becoming quite stormy. Here, at the heart of the work, Cecile Licad’s composure and experience stood her in good stead in heading towards the home stretch of the simple Eglogue, the moving Le Mal du Pays, and the heavenly Les Cloches de Genève, with its peaceful return to C major for the quiet close — a memorable experience, perhaps once in a lifetime, for many of us.
If this particular work of Liszt has parts that are among his most Chopinesque, maybe the choice of Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata to follow it was intended to show that Chopin could be made to sound like Liszt. However, the pianist may have been exhausted by the intense concentration of the first half of the program, since we heard instead a surprisingly heavy-handed and dismissive performance of much of the sonata.
Happily, enthusiastic applause produced three encores, all by Gottschalk, and these were delightfully performed, with the last of them being quite thrilling in its velocity.