Liszt Piano Works

In choosing the pieces for this recording I was, for once, given a ‘working brief': that is, I was asked to concentrate specifically on the more lyrical aspect of Liszt’s many-sided musical personality. The fact that the assembled recital includes several of his most popular works bears witness to its particular appeal.

However, whilst it is undoubtedly possible to categorise Liszt’s output - into, for instance, the lyrical, the diabolic, the gypsy, the Franciscan, the virtuoso - the distinctions are by no means simple and clear-cut. Indeed, this recital could arguably be said to represent the ‘virtuoso’ side of Liszt. He himself would not have been surprised by such a suggestion. If the 12 Etudes d’exécution transcendante comprise his lexicon of virtuoso techniques, it is at once apparent that the bravura octaves and cadenzas of, say, Mazeppa, are but a tiny fraction of what, for him, constituted virtuosity. Evidently the visionary simplicity of Paysage, the delicate traceries of Ricordanza, the elaborate colour-chord sequences of Harmonies du soir lay much greater claim to both his and our attention. ‘Transcendent’ implies virtuosity of poetic response as much as virtuosity of technique.

So, the real focus of this recital is the alliance between poetry and brilliance which was one of Liszt’s major pre-occupations. From the start it was misunderstood or misrepresented. Chopin’s extremely acid remarks about Liszt can be discounted; they are a reaction to the concert-giving period of Liszt’s life (characterised by the composer himself as his ‘Glanz-periode’ - ‘days of glitter’) and not to his compositions. Chopin was dead before any of Liszt’s mature work, including all the pieces on this disc, appeared - indeed he could scarcely have considered Liszt as a composer, Schumann’s attitude is more revealing: he wrote to his wife Clara, “Art, as you practise it, and as I do when I compose at the piano, this tender intimacy I would not give for all his splendour”.

Yet there is nothing facile or meretricious in Liszt’s musical language; the profusion of piano music which appeared in the I850’s, after he had given up concert-giving and settled in Weimar, was the final product of ideas which had occupied him for many years. The Années de Pèlerinage were for Liszt quite literally years of pilgrimage and wandering, years during which he slowly and painfully found himself as a composer. Whilst he painstakingly assembled an armoury of technical resources deriving on the one hand from aspects of the music of others - notably Paganini, Chopin, and Berlioz - and on the other from various new possibilities opened up by the prodigies of his piano playing and developments in the piano itself, he was also engaged in a passionate contemplation of Art and Nature which was to remain a necessary stimulus throughout his life. ‘Contemplation’ is a key word in the appreciation of Liszt’s music. In simple terms the compositional problem he set himself was how to create in music, which moves in time, which is dynamic, a state of contemplation, which is static. He achieved this by a technique of varied repetition of a single basic idea: that is, the idea is successively re-presented in different contexts of harmony (usually non-developing) and ornament. (To achieve this in performance requires, apart from any other considerations, a virtuoso pedal technique - something woefully lacking in many celebrated keyboard hacks who have mutilated Liszt’s music over the years: part of what is generally referred to as the ‘grand manner’!!) Liszt himself said: “What I attach most importance to is my harmonies; that will be my serious work: I will sacrifice everything to it”. Whereas the ‘First Year’ of the Années de Pèlerinage (Switzerland) is largely concerned with Nature, the ‘Second Year’ (Italy) contemplates works of art - the painting of Raphael, the sculpture of Michelangelo, the poetry of Petrarch and Dante. Liszt actually set the three Petrarch Sonnets for voice and piano in 1839 and the same melodies serve as rudimentary compositional material for the piano pieces but they are in no way (as is still trotted out in various writings) transcriptions. The 1858 piano pieces are prefaced by the poems as guidelines to some of the moods they evoke. Thus: Sonnet 47 “Benedetto sia ‘ I giorno” - “Blessed be the day and the month and the year . . . and the fair landscape and the place where I was joined by two beautiful eyes which have enslaved me”; Sonnet 104 “Pace non trovo” - “I find no peace, nor do I wish for war, I fear and hope and burn and am full of ice . . . to this state, Lady, have I come through you”; Sonnet 123" I vidi in terra angelici costumi” - “I saw on earth angelic figures, and celestial beauty”.

Liebestraum No. 3 (1850), subtitled Notturno, needs, of course, no introduction. Again, it derives from an earlier song, this time a setting of a poem by Ferdinand Freiligrath “O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst” - “O love, as long as you can love”.

Un Sospiro is the third of three Concert Studies published in 1849. The popular name “A Sigh” was appended by the publisher and not by Liszt. Technically it is a study in arpeggios and the presentation of a legato melody divided between the two hands, but of course it is the great beauty of the melody itself that has won the piece its popularity.

Nicknames can be very useful in popularising a work. The plain title Impromptu (1872, published 1877) - unusual for Liszt who had a positive genius for titles - has consigned this ravishing piece to near oblivion for many years. Like the second and third Valses Oubliées it is dedicated to Baroness Olga von Meyendorff (born Princess Gorchakov), a special muse of Liszt’s later years. The Consolations of 1850 (the title derives from poems of Sainte-Beuve) show Liszt in a mood of great poetic simplicity. The third piece, in D flat major, is an obvious tribute to Chopin - perhaps it was inspired by news of his death in 1849 - a meditation on the atmosphere of the opening bars of Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat major Op. 27, No. 2.

Gondoliera is the first piece in the volume of Années de Pèlerinage subtitled Venezia e Napoli, published in 1861 as a supplement to the Italian Second Year. After a brief atmospheric introduction we hear a version of a song by one Cavaliere Peruchini “La Biondina in Gondoletta”; this is then decorated in various ways - in its final presentation with an ornamentation virtually copied by Ravel in his Ondine - and lastly transformed into a visionary coda which looks forward to Liszt’s later manner.

© Paul Crossley