A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes 40: The Liszt Sonata

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Franz Liszt in 1858 by Franz Hanfstaengl
Franz Liszt in 1858 by Franz Hanfstaengl

The piano music of Franz Liszt makes performing the central issue, a fundamental structural presence. Twentieth-century Werktreue just isn’t enough for these pieces. Many of Liszt’s pieces are keyboard performances of other composers’ music heard with Liszt’s ears. We call them arrangements or transcriptions, but what they are is a way of hearing.  What always surprises me about a number of these transcriptions is their reticence. Liszt’s arrangement of the Schubert “Ave Maria” is almost demure, as befits the subject. His famous Isolde’s Verklärung is surprisingly faithful, and to my ears only sounds pianistic in the rattling chords underneath the climax of the piece. Pianists always say that these transcriptions are like actual piano pieces, not copies of anything. They make us hear what piano playing is to Liszt.

For me Liszt is always a narrative composer, and his music becomes increasingly so as he ages. His best yarn is the Piano Sonata in b minor. Long thought to be a Faustian tale of some sort, artists and scholars have invented many a detailed …. There is the initial cell, played with the most imminence by Sviatoslav Richter. There is the progress up to the grand tune played most convincingly by Claudio Arrau. There are the devilish elements tweaked to the hilt by Vladimir Horowitz. And there is the overall attempt at sublimity best measured up to by Alfred Brendel. All of these pianists, with the exception of Brendel, I have heard only on recordings. From the back of Boston’s Symphony Hall, Brendel’s version seemed a little cool but as always there was a great structural integrity to the performance. It just didn’t seemed “performed” though. It wasn’t visceral. The famous Arrau recording comes close to getting it right because the piece is basically one long transition. His superb skill at making the connections work gives the piece a unity that no other version has. He has a belief in the integrity of the piece. Many other performances cover up a nagging doubt with bluster.

I have listened also to two young pianists playing the piece just now: Khatia Buniatishvili on Sony and Yuja Wang in recital at the Masry Center at The College of St. Rose. I wish I could say I enjoyed Ms. Wang’s performance more. It was, by any measure, tremendous, but it was relentlessly tremendous. It seemed almost dutiful, like it was a task, something to be completed well. The audience loved it; there was an audible sigh when she reappeared for the second half wearing a different dress. There was great technical assurance; it’s not that she can’t get her fingers to do anything she wants them to do. There seemed to be two gears—fast and loud, and slow and “musical”. Ms. Buniatishvili, on her new recording, is also just waiting to play fast. There was more inside to her slow playing than I heard in the Wang performance, but these things are very hard to judge from a recording. I have also liked another new Liszt recording, Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez, performing both Liszt concerti with the Staatskapelle Berlin. Here the score is taken seriously and played without bombast. There is clarity. Liszt’s piano music is just about the worst listening experience one can have with a CD player. There is always a stridency to any recording of piano music, and the dynamic extremes in Liszt’s music exaggerate this. More importantly, the music is hugely performative, and that kind of presence in the room is precisely what does not get onto a recorded disc. One just has to intuit.

Mostly what I have learned from these severely selected listening experiences is that Liszt is not the grotesque charlatan he is often made out to be. There is occasional bombast to be sure, but most of the time, especially in his arrangements of orchestral or operatic music, he is strangely understated, even reverent. Clearly the  players I have been listening to do not hear it this way. I leave you with one last example: Lang Lang’s new Liszt recording includes a performance of the famous Liszt arrangement of Isolde’s Verklärung. It is played magnificently, subtly, but it is the old Horowitz recording on the Sony label, his last, that uses all the magic of mixing and flowing that Horowitz alone possessed to make the music an ecstatic thing. At the climax of the arrangement the pianist is required to play those rattling forte chords (where the soprano would be in the middle of her top notes). Lang Lang’s are magnificent, not overstated, shapely, but Horowitz’s are true. You know what the story is, even listening to these couple of bars. The end of Horowitz’s recording is the end of a narrative, not just the end of a piece.

Coming soon: a report on several remasterings of Désormière’s great Pelléas et Mélisande of 1941,  including the new Pristine Audio 32-bit downloads.

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