Spotlight: Franz Liszt

Of all the great nineteenth-century composers, Franz Liszt alone still remains to be fully explored. Alan Walker may have written these words in the foreword to his book on the composer in 1968, but they carry the same weight in 2011, the bicentenary of his birth.

How can it be that the work of one of the undisputedly great pianists of all time, and one of the most influential composers and musical figures of the nineteenth-century, can languish out of earshot as it has done in the intervening years? In that time, orchestras have shied away from programming and recording Liszt’s music until recently, while pianists rarely stray from the safe repertoire. Choirs and chamber groups hardly even go near.

Leslie Howard is in a unique position to judge, having filled 99 CDs for Hyperion with every available note the composer wrote for piano. The set, released in February and in progress since 1984, contains some astonishing music, including that discovered and prepared for performance by Howard over the last few years. The pianist blames Liszt’s contemporaries for originating scepticism and outright dislike of his music. “The theory is that it starts within his own lifetime, where he was far too successful. He had better looks than all the others, even in his craggy old age. He made such a fortune in France he forgot about an account he had in Paris. He never owned a house or rented an apartment; he stayed in hotels, and was put up in various places when being employed. In Weimar, where he was Kapellmeister for 12 years, he lived in a hotel downtown”.

“The resentment comes with people writing badly about him”, Howard asserts, “and it is compounded by people like Brahms, particularly in the famous article with Joachim, in which he condemned Liszt, Wagner, Bruckner and Cornelius. Wagner decided it was a Jewish plot and went for broke. Liszt chose not to respond, but said he didn’t mind because the pieces would have their day in the sun eventually. He was like a film star, the most photographed man of the nineteenth-century, but he made lots of enemies among the small minded. This was despite his generosity he kept Smetana for years, and sent money to Borodin”.

Fellow pianist James Rhodes takes a similar approach. “In many ways, I think he is misunderstood. I play a lot of his compositions, and I don’t get him most of the time! He was writing during a period that encompassed Chopin, Schumann and Wagner, but harmonically his late works look forward to Schoenberg. Add to that his by all accounts weird personality (he was the rock star of his day but then took holy orders, he had a very odd private life, he invented the solo-piano recital, and thanks to him we all now have to play from memory!) and it’s no wonder his music sometimes seems like the world tilts a bit to the left!”

Another issue, maintains Howard, is to do with the way the composer is performed. “Liszt does not serve you well if you play him to show off. You can make him sound full or empty, according to the way you play. Where virtuosity is spoken of as a dirty word, to play any of this music well the point is not to demonstrate your technique but the music itself. If you read any articles about his playing when he was young, the word ‘effortless’ is always used. People also think they can change his dynamics whenever they like. There are more than 40 volumes in the new Liszt edition. I’ve recorded 1,400 or so pieces, yet only 100 or so get anything near regular performance.

Howard would rather see Liszt paralleled with Wagner, and is keen for the orchestral works to get greater exposure, despite a recent project to record them from the BBC Philharmonic and Gianandrea Noseda. “There is a lot around, but it is around the edges of the repertoire. Haitink last did the symphonic poems in 1977. I would like a serious conductor with the calibre of Gergiev to take them up.”

So where in Howard’s view is a good place for the Liszt newcomer to start, a good ‘way in’? If you want to understand Liszt widely then I would say Christus, the Faust Symphony and the Piano Sonata. If I could take one piece to the desert island it would be Christus“.

Liszt’s achievements in music, too many to detail here, can be distilled into achievements in the fields of music for piano, orchestra and choir though Howard himself will be revealing more of Liszt the chamber music composer in a special weekend with friends at the Wigmore Hall in London on 8th October.

As an orchestral composer, Liszt practically invented the symphonic poem, used to such great pictorial effect by his musical descendants Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss. Of the thirteen works he wrote in this form, Prometheus, Mazeppa, Hamlet and Les Preludes are full of drama and emotion, while many of the others respond well to repeated listening.

Too often Liszt piano music is represented by the Sonata alone. This overlooks similarly vivid pictorial pieces for the instrument that carry the same impact as the symphonic poems depictions of St Francis of Assisi Preaching To The Fishes, for example. Annes de Plerinage contains exceptionally vivid portraits composed in response to poetry (the Petrarch Sonnets), painting (Sposalizio) and even sculpture (Il penseroso), exploring new and exciting coloristic effects for the instrument in the process.

Illustrations of Liszt’s total affinity with the piano can be found frequently in his frankly astonishing transcriptions of the nine Beethoven symphonies, where counter melodies are somehow kept spinning as the pianist performs minor miracles to keep them all in the air. In his recordings of the symphonies, Leslie Howard demonstrates how Liszt remains at all times reverential to Beethoven’s music, adapting it for piano without losing the spirit or trajectory. As a result there is an unusual grace to the introduction of the First Symphony, while the Eroica and the Eighth Symphony start out with brisk purpose.

“The transcriptions work because he understood the piano completely”, says Howard, “but he also knew his Beethoven symphonies very well. They come out sounding like very superior piano sonatas, and I think he did it by not writing down literally all the notes, but some that make the right noise. Sooner or later you find a passage like the Scherzo of the Seventh symphony, where he throws in trills in different octaves to make them sound continuous. In the finale of the Ninth I find the two piano version more rewarding, as there is just too much physical effort involved in the solo version to play all the notes! He asks you to do things you might not have been asked to do by more conventional composers.

There may yet be more to come on record from Howard, who to date has set down over two days’ worth of music on disc. “There are pieces we know he wrote, but we can’t find. One is in a private collection, which I saw at Sothebys in 1987. It’s a fantasy, but until whoever bought it dies we will not be able to see it. There are also transcriptions of Beethoven the Egmont and Coriolan Overtures and a transcription of the Berlioz Le Corsaire overture”.

“This year all the conductors are conducting Mahler instead of Liszt”, he notes. “The last chorus of the Eighth Symphony would not be what it is without Liszt’s Faust Symphony, he had it at his elbow when he wrote it. The symphonic poems are very fine if they’re done well. I don’t see much effort being made to put them on.

There are some exceptions, with Kings Place admirably focussing on the chamber and choral works as well as the piano in its Liszt Weekend. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment have reinvented Les Preludes on original instruments, while Vladimir Jurowski looks to perform more orchestral works in the shape of 2 Episodes from Lenau’s Faust on April 16th. On June 13th the unlikely team of Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez will give performances of both piano concertos, while on February 26th the BBC Philharmonic will perform the rarely heard Dante Symphony, complete with choral finale, in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.

Next month the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra enter the arena on record, with a darkly dramatic disc of theThree Funeral Odes and Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust, again for release on Hyperion. A bargain EMI box of some of the major piano works is available from Gyorgy Cziffra, with plans to release a bigger set including the orchestral works in July.

Rhodes, meanwhile, has a pretty unequivocal message for doubters, one to make the prospective listener want to dive straight in. “Liszt took piano writing to a whole new level of virtuosity and rewrote the manual as to what is possible on the piano. His tonal range, his utilisation of thematic transformation, his pushing of the harmonic boundaries, his epic transcriptions of operas/symphonies, and his exploration of Programme Music all make him one of the greatest composers of the 19th century in my opinion.”

He adds his personal favourites for those approaching the piano music. “I have so many! My absolute favourite is Mikhail Pletnev’s first recording for Melodya of his B minor Sonata, coupled with a simply astonishing Mephisto Waltz and others. I would add to that the trio of mad Russians Denis Matsuev’s 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody (with the coolest jazz cadenza I’ve ever heard), Arcadi Volodos’ Dante Sonata, and pretty much anything Vladimir Horowitz recorded. I would also add Cziffra to this list, just because what he does with his fingers should be illegal, and John Ogdon’s recordings of the concertos.”

Finally, he encapsulates what makes Liszt special to him when discussing the Dante Sonata. “For me this piece really encapsulates his genius. Everything is there, from hair-raising virtuosity to the most remarkable harmonic explorations. It’s no wonder so many pianists are quite mad playing works like this it’s the devil in 88 keys…”

Time, then, to take Howard and Rhodes at their word, take a deep breath, and begin exploring one of the 19th century’s most influential yet least understood composers. You may want to use the attached Spotify playlist to begin or renew your quest. Make no mistake, it is a journey well worth making.

Leslie Howard’s recordings of the complete piano works of Liszt are available through Hyperion, and are available in individual volumes. These include new discoveries made in Rarities, Volume 3, headed by the striking Romancero Espagnol.

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