My, oh my… forty volumes. You'd suppose that by now they'd be scraping the bottom of the barrel. Either they have and Howard makes these things sound better than their intrinsic musical merit, or Liszt is simply an uncommonly interesting musical mind. I suspect a bit of both.
The works on the program tell us much about the life of a nineteenth-century piano virtuoso. Our own concert tastes seem positively dour beside those of our forebears. Elaborations of popular songs and dances, opera paraphrases, pieces d'occasion, and especially the variations on "national airs" all crowded the kit bag. The traveling virtuoso was not only the priest of high culture, but pretty much the juke box and (with the "monster concert") t.v. As well. S. Frederick Starr lays out much of this in his recent study of Gottschalk.
The "Gaudeamus igitur" paraphrase is a delight and includes a fugue and hell-for-leather "Hungarian rondo" amongst the finger fireworks. I prefer it to the later Humoreske, which, although better constructed, lacks the inventive exuberance of its predecessor. "Una stella amica" is a negligible little waltz by somebody named Pezzini and the "Seconda Mazurka" comes from a composer named Tirindelli, whom Liszt apparently thought something of, since he "elaborated" three of the Italian's works. They're charming trifles, definitely of their time and place, and Howard makes you feel the charm. "La marche pour le Sultan" comes from Gaetano Donizetti's brother, Giuseppe, and it became the anthem of the Ottoman empire. Liszt arranged this for solo piano, and it's firmly in the line of the "national airs" pieces. Gottschalk, for example, carefully programmed such pieces in the countries he toured and even composed a set of variations on "God Save the Queen," since the tune was used by several nations as an anthem. Liszt did make it to Turkey, and it was almost de rigeur that he would come up with something like – the musical equivalent of a lounge singer's "It's great to be here in Sandusky! Love ya!"
The two marches – the second Hungarian and the one written for Goethe's birthday – lack the manic passage work of the typical Lisztian showstopper and really seem sketches for orchestral works, and, indeed, the composer orchestrated both. The Sturmmarsch has the energy of Berlioz's Racozky. Howard here manages to suggest the orchestra through a discreet variety of touch and color. The festival march begins like gangbusters with two stunning harmonic ideas, but soon lapses into the less-than-routine. Not even Howard can save it.
Howard plays the arrangements of the three Russian pieces in their first versions (the final versions appeared in volume 35). The interest lies largely in the basic material, since the arrangements are rather straightforward. They still take mighty fingers to bring off (especially the Galop), but again there's nothing truly jaw-dropping about the piano writing. "Solovei" (nightingale) poetically conjures up the song of the bird in its introduction and closes with a rousing fast dance. Howard scores particularly in the introduction, with a tasteful evocation of the nightingale without losing the presence of the melody.
The above pieces are basically salads and dessert. The meat of the program comes from the first versions of the Impromptu and the second Ballade (final versions both recorded in volume 2). Stamina and physical technique are merely what a pianist needs to bring to the table. The works demand as much poetry as Chopin and an even stronger sense of architecture from the pianist. They should not be seen to meander. This last danger probably looms larger in the Ballade. This is where Howard proves his Lisztian chops. The Nocturne shares harmonic ideas and textures with Liszt's "famous" Liebestraum (volume 19). Here, Howard impresses the listener with, aside from a wonderful delicacy of touch, his ability to turn the appogiaturas and trills into genuinely expressive devices, as opposed to fustian camp. Last thoughts aren't always the best. To me, the Nocturne surpasses its incarnation as the Impromptu in subtlety and harmonic freshness and the "triumphal" ending of the Ballade's first version better fulfills the structural implications of the material than the "delicate" end of the final version.
The Ballade resembles the Sonata and the first concerto in its compositional methods. Essentially, it subjects three primary motives or melodic fragments to fantasia procedures. It "feels" somewhat like a tripartate arch with coda, but analysis doesn't really bear this out. Still, it's one of Liszt's most satisfying longer structures. His basic material is from the top shelf and there's not a workaday moment in the piece. I've heard pianists play this work faster and more deliberately rough than Howard, who turns it into something as suave as the Sonata, but to me Howard takes the right approach. Others make of the piece an occasion for display through the violent contrast of extremes (stormy and tender) and consequently destroy the architecture. Howard's technique is so secure he makes you forget it. There are fiendish double glissandi that evade the listener as such because Howard has turned them into music, rather than tricks. Furthermore, Howard infuses the work with an off-kilter disquiet, first caught in the quasi-chorale after the opening bit of "troubled waters." He brings off a union between melodic and harmonic instability mainly because he takes his time to poke about the odd landscape Liszt has created. An outstanding performance on a very entertaining disc.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz