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.

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