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CD Review

Franz Liszt

Romantic Works for Piano & Orchestra

  • Rhapsodie espagnole, S. 254 (orch. & arr. Busoni)
  • Malédiction, S. 121 *
  • Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Themes, S. 123 *
  • Schubert/Liszt: "Wanderer" Fantasy, S. 366
Joshua Pierce, piano
Moscow State Philharmonic Orchestra/Paul Freeman
* State Symphony Orchestra of Russia/Paul Freeman
MSR 1210 62:15
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Overlooked treasure.

I figured out a long time ago that a significant portion of the classical-music public has less interest in music than in performers. A concert becomes a sporting event, where the performer executes something like a triple play all by himself – a physical feat that seems impossible before you see it done. I'm exactly the opposite. If, for example, a Vagn Holmboe symphony, by some major miracle, shows up on a concert program in my neighborhood, I'm there. On the other hand, I've let at least some star performers go by, and I can't think of too many I actually went out of my way to hear live. I suspect that the opposite has held true for most, and for a long time.

The Nineteenth Century, historians tell us, gave rise to a concert-going middle class who could and did support the travelling virtuoso, also a Nineteenth-Century phenomenon. The virtuoso needed material that showed him off, that convinced the public that he could play more notes faster than anybody. Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert really didn't fill the bill. Their music doesn't necessarily impose physical difficulties. Besides, for much of the first half of the century, you didn't find their names on concert programs. Beethoven himself complained that the virtuosi didn't play his stuff. Instead, you had people like Liszt, Gottschalk, and Thalberg – all of whom provided themselves with material which allowed their fingers to flash, fly, and fulminate. So you get many pyrotechnical paraphrases on operatic excerpts, national airs (the performers' equivalent of saying, "It's great to be here in Sandusky!"), and sentimental cartes de visites. Most of these things have, to nobody's big surprise, vanished from most people's consciousness, relegated to the scholar's shelf.

Most, but not all. Liszt, with a rate of survival significantly higher than his rivals (including Gottschalk), still has these kinds of virtuosic displays in many performers' repertory. We can reasonably ask why. First, of course, they are much better written than most They hang together more closely than the usual potpourris, where one variation or tune follows another without much, if any, rationale. Second, Liszt genuinely explored the musical resources he found on his travels. I believe he was one of the first in the major centers of Western Europe to discover Russian and Spanish folk music. In turn, he influenced other composers, including composers in Russia and in Spain, by his treatments. In some cases, he helped found national schools of composition not only through his encouragement, but through his example.

Rhapsodie espagnole illustrates these points. At the time Liszt wrote it (1858), Spanish nationalist music, particularly concert evocations of gitano music, was in its infancy. The "big" Spanish pieces were by Schumann: Spanisches Liederspiel and Spanische Liebeslieder as well as Glinka's Jota aragonesa, all from roughly the same time as Liszt. Liszt's title deceives a bit, since it's a lot tighter than what we think of as a rhapsody. It uses two tunes – La Folia (known since at least the Renaissance) and the same Jota aragonesa as Glinka. I have no idea which of them used it first (both come from 1858) or who might have influenced whom. After an exposition of both tunes, Liszt then combines them for a big finish. Busoni orchestrated the solo piano original and also altered Liszt's cadenza, but I'm not scholarly enough to care. It succeeds not only in its considerable attractiveness (I love fake Spanish music), but in its willingness to offer a bit more.

Liszt composed Malédiction ("curse") fairly early – anywhere from 1833 to 1840; scholars disagree. It may very well be his first work for piano and orchestra. Liszt's astonishing originality as well as his inexperience with the medium strike you immediately. For one thing, he uses piano against strings, as if he knows he can't yet handle the full instrumental panoply of the orchestra. Most noticeably, the piano part – the full Lisztian monty – overpowers the strings. To Liszt's credit, a small set of motifs binds the piece together. Based on the composer's markings in the score, there may even be a dramatic program. The harmonies are far ahead of their time (you can hear stuff that Wagner cribbed). For me, they constitute the glory and the limitation of the score. They are so odd, so bold, that they bleed the interest from the melodies. Indeed, the melodies are often little more than arpeggiated chords. But none of its defects seems to matter. But for its brief length, this piece would be part of every virtuoso's repertory. In many ways, it's kin to the wonderful (and better-known) Totentanz.

Liszt expanded his piano solo Hungarian Rhapsody #14 into the Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Themes, a full-blooded treatment for piano and orchestra. Again, "fantasia" doesn't do the piece justice. It's really an extended consideration of two little thematic cells, with a couple of side trips. The first idea consists of a grand, heroic statement, the second of a fanfare. Both ideas comment on each other. A "gypsy" allegretto (a ploy found in many of the other Hungarian Rhapsodies, including the really famous one used in Bugs Bunny cartoons) and, toward the end, a czárdás make up the tangents. Liszt weaves them back to into the main fabric by use of the fanfare motif. In its procedures, it strongly anticipates especially the first piano concerto, which he was working on at the time. Again, the score has a lot more substance than its title implies, but it doesn't eschew virtuoso thrills. Even when the piano accompanies an orchestral thread, the figures achieve such complexity, your jaw drops. The spotlight hardly ever leaves the soloist.

I must confess that, while I admire Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy and certainly appreciate its historical importance, I don't particularly like it. It explores and it risks, but for me some of the paths lead to dead ends and the risks are realized by some incredibly awkward piano writing. However, I adore Liszt's arrangement – because I'm shallow. I consider it an immense improvement over the original, even though in general I like to hear what a composer actually wrote rather than someone else's take on the material. In this case, Liszt orchestrates not only to provide color variety, but to illuminate Schubert's structure, something all but the greatest pianists tend to lose in the original.

Since Beethoven, Romantic composers were interested in creating large-scale works from just a few ideas – actually, one idea, if at all possible. One sought "unity in variety" and often a form determined exclusively by content. Wagner, for example, had convinced himself that his entire Ring tetralogy had grown from an E Flat Major chord. In his prelude to Das Rheingold, you can actually hear this working out to a surprising extent. Liszt himself had helped pioneer this, especially in the piano concerti and the b-minor sonata. But Liszt got it from Schubert, and Schubert from Beethoven. The "Wanderer" fantasy (so-called because it's based on the Schubert Lied "Der Wanderer") owes a lot, particularly in its first section, to Beethoven, particularly in the emphasis on "thematic rhythm." There are two ideas that comprise the entire score, but the second comes from the first. The piece is in four broad sections, corresponding to opening allegro, adagio, scherzo, and allegro finale. Liszt calls it a tone poem, but one can easily see it as a Konzertstück or even as a single-movement concerto. This is Liszt largely without tricks, thoroughly serious, although the piano writing is of course expert. Liszt thought so highly of Schubert's fantasy, that he arranged it at least three times – solo piano, piano 4-hands, and here, for piano and orchestra. I wish pianists put it in concert more often.

Joshua Pierce, whom I know better as half of the duo-piano team of Pierce and Jonas, holds his own against some formidable competition: Arrau, Bolet, Brendel, Howard, and Cziffra. Arrau and Bolet have a certain grandeur, Cziffra has flamboyance, and Brendel intellect. Howard has all three, and at the appropriate times. Pierce has the fingers to pull the music off, but I'm more impressed by his ability to find the lyricism in Liszt, something many pianists lose sight of. The orchestras are professional, with the edge going to the State Symphony Orchestra of Russia in the Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Themes. Paul Freeman keeps everything moving and coherent. The sound standard, while not spectacular, nevertheless conforms to current levels.

Copyright © 2010, Steve Schwartz.