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.

The Pollini Project: Chopin, Debussy, Boulez, Royal Festival Hall, June 28, 2011

This was originally intended to be the penultimate programme of Pollini’s five-concert Project spanning the gamut of keyboard repertoire from Bach to Boulez (albeit with a large Classical Period-sized gap), but has been postponed for a couple of months due to illness. In my opinion this has made for a more fitting end to the series, not only following chronological order but also concluding by challenging the audience with something ‘modern’ rather than the obvious crowd-pleasing Chopin of what became the fourth Project concert. Appropriately, this concert in fact draws a connection, perhaps not immediately obvious, between the hugely different Chopin and Boulez.

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