Saturday, August 28, 2010

Sunday Classics preview: Liszt the keyboard dervish


Actually, we're not going to hear Liszt's First Piano Concerto tomorrow, so let's listen tonight to the first part played by the titanic Martha Argerich in November 1999 with the Toho Music School Orchestra under Chikara Iwamura. (The performance concludes here.)

by Ken

Last night we heard the orchestral Liszt in full cry in that grandest of all symphonic poems, Les Préludes. Today we sample the keyboard Liszt, the composer who was the greatest pianist of his and possibly any time.

We start with two "concert études," from two different sets, as chosen and of course played by the amazing Sviatoslav Richter. In "Un sospiro," it's hard enough to sustain the melting beauty of the melodic line without reckoning on all the embellishment Liszt piles on -- this is a study, after all, a piece centrally concerned with technical mastery.

"Gnomenreigen" is a killer. Oh, lots of pianists can bang out all those percussively attacked notes, but then to realize them with such beauty of tone and continuity of line?

LISZT: Concert Etudes

"Un Sospiro" ("A Sigh") (No. 3 of Three Concert Etudes, S. 144)

"Gnomenreigen" ("Gnomes' Round") (No. 2 of Two Concert Etudes, S. 145)

Sviatoslav Richter, piano. Philips, recorded live, 1988

Now we have Liszt as musical landscape artist, in one of the best-loved pieces from the year devoted to Italy in his wonderful set Years of Pilgrimage (Années de pèlerinage). The Hungarian-French pianist Georges Cziffra was a maddeningly eccentric and unpredictable pianist (I don't dare say "erratic," or the Cziffra True Believers will come yelling and whooping out of the woodwork), but the tone-painting here seems to me pure magic.

LISZT: "Les Jeux d'eau dans la Villa d'Este" ("The Play of Water at the Villa d'Este") (No. 8 of the Second Year, Italy, of the Années de pèlerinage, or Years of Pilgrimage)

Georges Cziffra, piano. EMI, recorded c1960s

Finally, while we don't have the kind of morbidly bass-obsessed performance the funereal "Funérailles" can handle -- in this instance I might say that that lyrical master Aldo Ciccolini, who played Debussy so beautifully for us, is a little too tasteful -- I think we still get a good feeling for a whole other, darker dimension of LIszt's creative personality.

Arthur Rubinstein's 1953 recording isn't quite what I'm groping for either, but it's closer. And I'm throwing it in because I was so relieved to find the CD, which had turned up missing from its jewel case when I was mapping out the music for this post. (I hate when that happens.) It finally occurred to me to check in a CD player I hardly use, and sure enough there it was!

LISZT: "Funérailles" (No. 7 of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses)

Aldo Ciccolini, piano. EMI, recorded Apr. 9-10, 1990
Arthur Rubinstein, piano. RCA/BMG, recorded Oct.-Nov. 1953


What else? The orchestral Liszt and the keyboard Liszt come together. We'll hear the rocking Hungarian Fantasia and the Second Piano Concerto.

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