A Singer’s Notes 40: The Liszt Sonata

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.

Stephen Hough. Photo Stephen Wise.

The Multifaceted Piano Sonata: Stephen Hough’s Recital of Sonatas

Stephen Hough says that he chose this program to be one of strange sonatas, which is altogether fitting for Liszt’s 200th birthday. The program, consisting entirely of sonatas — no préludes, études or the like (not counting the three encore pieces) — might theoretically have been stranger with, say, one of Pierre Boulez’s sonatas, but Hough seems to have been after a more subtle variety of strangeness. A sense of mystery and a very personal quality, very expressive of the internal world marry these pieces under Hough’s playing. The honesty and faithfulness to the Truth in his playing brought the music close to poetry. Though making music and poems are not the same or even parallel activities, the word ‘sonata’ shares an etymology with ‘sonnet’, the stem son- having to do with sound, and, as Stephen Hough points out in the program note, a sonata is sounded rather than sung, the piano having to make do on its own without words. Hough also pointed out in his short speech in-between the Beethoven and his own piece (usually I’d be against spiels in amongst the music, but Hough is a very good public speaker, thoughtful an interesting, with the voice of a 1930’s radio presenter), that Liszt, whose birthday fell on the very day of this recital, invented the concept and the word ‘recital’ as a sort of pure recitation of music of a single musician. Thus, though sounded and not sung there is the similar expectation in the audience, the similar solitude of the performer as in a poetry recitation, far from a mere reading, but an honest expression of the sonata as if it were naturally being created then and there, as Hough says ‘as if the notes were still wet on the page.’ Mozart wrote something similar once, that the height of piano playing is to play as if you had composed the music yourself.

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