A little something at the Festival for Lisztomaniacs
IWAS delighted to see that the Edinburgh International Festival, which opens this weekend, will feature a small nod in the direction of Franz Liszt. There’s not much of his music, but the handful of pieces that will be played is a reminder of a paradox: that a figure who was once a spectacular superstar in musical society, and international society at large, is now an unfashionable composer in many quarters, although a man whose colossal output might number over 1000 pieces. And thank goodness for the neglect, the Lisztophobes in the world mutter in relief, intoning their old mantras about “bombast”, “vacuous rhetoric” and“self-indulgent showmanship”, to mention just a few of epithets hurled in Liszt’s direction.
I’ve loved his music since I was young. I spent countless hours listening to the Second Hungarian Rhapsody, believing it to be one of the most entertaining and potentially witty pieces of music ever written. The young George Li will play it, along with one of the beautiful Consolations. The awesome Transcendental Studies, of which Stephen Hough will play two, are almost beyond description in the scope of the virtuosity they demand – and are certainly beyond the ability of us lesser mortals to play. And the phenomenal Daniil Trifonov, who plays all of these pieces and more, will perform the eye-popping Paganini Studies at the festival.
But it wasn’t just these mind-blowing showcase pieces that I indulged myself with when younger. And nor was it Liszt’s two piano concertos, his myriad symphonic poems (he invented the genre) or his actual orchestralsymphonic works such as the Faust Symphony. These, in fact, do not show him at strength, though that might be a minority opinion among Lisztophiles. I think his great areas of genius are more widespread throughout his music. His extraordinary ability to weave absolutely coherent and integrated piano fantasies from other composers’ operas is a genius so refined it almost beggars belief. The size of the extract from which Liszt fashions his fantasies is irrelevant: it feels as though the whole thing is there, even though you know it isn’t. The great quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto is one of the most stunning examples of its type: and it’s extravagant but concise. In the right hands (and it has to be the right hands) Liszt’s arrangement is a work of genius in its own right. His arrangement for piano of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is an absolute heartbreaker, and Liszt’s grandiose version of Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture, which Denis Khozhukin played a year or so ago in Perth, had folk gasping in disbelief.
And there were even bigger things Liszt did. He arranged all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies for solo piano. He went even further in his staggering arrangement for one pianist of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Equally, Liszt was a miracle-worker on a smaller scale. His arrangements for solo piano of Schubert’s songs, with the vocal part woven seamlessly into the fabric of the piece, are absolute gems.
Try his version of The Trout and be charmed forever. Of his larger-scale solo pieces there are two above all I would recommend seeking – and you can find just about every piece mentioned in this column free on YouTube, audio and video with the more modern recordings, such as Trifonov’s, sometimes audio only in older, more historic versions . The pieces I would urge you listen to are Les jeux d’eaux a la Villa d’Este, The Fountains of the Villa d’Este, a work of rapturous beauty that is almost a precursor of Impressionism, and the Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude, one of Liszt’s great melodies whose repetitions he garlands with everincreasingly expansive arpeggios. So simple, so alluring. Listen to Claudio Arrau’s version on YouTube (audio only). It is utterly glorious and moving.
There are hundreds of other individual pieces I could point you to, and many other enthralling aspects of Liszt’s life and career, from his womanising and teaching to his aspiration to be a member of the clergy, in which, to a degree, he was successful. But if I don’t at least mention the greatest of his piano pieces I will be lynched by the Liszt mafia (except I’m a paid-up member). And that is the B Minor Sonata, a big piece. It’s in one movement. Some hear the structure of a multi-movement piano sonata within it. I don’t. I’ve listened to it as a continuum since a lad.
It is completely integrated and brings together every aspect of Liszt’s art and compositional genius. The whole thing is built from the germ cells you hear at the outset, including a scale, a little rhythmic figure and an angular shape, topped by a great tune. Have a listen. You might find something there.