Ferenc and Me: Learning to love Liszt

Last year it was Purcell and Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn. This year it’s Chopin, Schumann and Mahler, and next year it will be Liszt (and Mahler – again!). I am talking, of course, of composer anniversaries, celebrations to mark either their birth or death, or, in the case of Mahler, both.

The trend for marking such events with coverage on radio, tv and in concert halls and lecture theatres seems to have increased exponentially in recent years, the most significant, perhaps, being Mozart Year in 2006, marking the 250th birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which induced a veritable tsunami of ‘Mozartomania’, on the airwaves and concert platforms around the world. Classic FM went into daily paroxyms of cliché-ridden excitement about Mozart’s “laahvely melodies”, and wheeled out ‘Mozart favourites’ with such alarming regularity that one began to suspect the recordings were on a continuous loop. With increased coverage and focus on a particular composer, one is afforded the opportunity, without having to try very hard, to get to know that composer and his music better. Thus, last year, I properly discovered Handel, a composer whose oeuvre had been nudging at the edges of my musical consciousness for many years.

The same is true of Franz (Ferenc) Liszt, the larger-than-life towering intellectual genius of the 19th century, friend to Chopin, George Sand, and Delacroix, champion and benefactor of composers such as Berlioz, Wagner and Greig, lover of aristocratic women, trainee priest, phenomenally accomplished pianist and conductor, who contributed importantly to the development of the art, and who, almost single-handedly, made the virtuoso piano recital what it is today, an important teacher and a highly influential composer.

I rather facetiously said to a friend recently that I did not “do” Liszt, for which I was immediately ticked off. I am reasonably familiar with quite a lot of his piano music, though I will hold my hands up and admit that I have avoided his orchestral works. I could probably recognise and/or name quite a few of his piano works if a question came up on Brain of Britain. But he does not feature in my repertoire – yet. By the same token, I do not “do” Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, all fine composers for the piano (though I must agree with my piano tuner here, who once said “I cannot see the point of Rachmaninov”!!). In fact, there’s a lot I don’t “do”: as I have mentioned before on this blog, the trouble with, and the joy of being a pianist is the vast repertoire, and the lack of time to acquaint oneself with all of it.

I think my ‘problem’ with Liszt was that I had heard too many bad performances, too many overly romantic interpretations, and read too many urban myths about him. I suspect he was probably riotously good company (he was ridiculously portrayed by Julian Sand in a truly dire film about Chopin, who was, incidentally, played by Hugh Grant, for the Lord’s sake!); he was also very hardworking, if the other urban legends are true. It is said that he practised for 12 hours a day, that he had huge hands (often cited as the reason why so much of his piano music is famously difficult). Apparently, his concerts could go on for hours, full of pyrotechnic displays of virtuosity, improvisation and general showmanship. Today, most of us who enjoy classical concerts, would have no truck with this kind of extreme showboating behaviour (except perhaps fans of Lang Lang). He was also wrote essays on many subjects, was admitted to minor holy orders, though he never became a priest (he undertook no vows of celibacy), and was a highly committed teacher.

Listening to the Années de pèlerinage, one has a sense of a man more closely aligned, spiritually and artistically, to writers such as Byron, Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth, the French artists Jacques-Louis David, Eugene Delacroix (who was a friend of Liszt’s) and Théodore Gericault, and English painters JMW Turner and William Blake. He is defined as a ‘Romantic’ composer, which slots him neatly into the shared chronology of Chopin and Schumann, though he far outlived these contemporaries, and his music looked far beyond the confines of 19th-century Romanticism. The Romantic period in music falls later than the Romantic period in art and literature, yet I feel Liszt is more in tune with the aforementioned poets and artists. Some of the pieces in the Années suite are subtle, imaginative, and deeply poetic musical visualisations of works by Michaelangelo and Raphael, while others are inspired by the Sonnets of Petrarch. Later pieces, from the third year, such as “Les Jeux d’Eaux à la Villa d’Este” (“The Fountains of the Villa d’Este”), seem to prefigure impressionist works on similar subjects by Debussy and Ravel (La cathédrale engloutie, Jeux d’Eau to name but a few).

My Dover edition of the complete Années dropped through the letterbox the other day (actually, the postman had to ring the bell, but I like the idea of Liszt dropping through my letterbox!), and I spent a happy hour browsing and sight-reading my way through it. The ‘Sonnetto 123 del Petrarca’ is on the approved repertoire list for my Diploma, which is as good a reason as any to learn this piece, aside from the sheer, unadulterated beauty of it, but I suspect my teacher will tell me off for selecting yet another slow Romantic piece, so something with a little more pace may be more appropriate. In the end it doesn’t matter: the entire suite of pieces is wonderful, worthy of months – years! – of exploration. Meanwhile, I enjoyed a very pleasant afternoon listening to Lazar Berman’s fine recording while watching a slide show of my holiday photographs (courtesy of my swanky Apple TV gadget), appropriately pictures taken in Liguria two years ago, and shots of snowy Alps in France. Indeed, listening to the Années is a little like going on holiday to the most beautiful, cultural parts of Italy and Switzerland, taking in the art and literature on the way – oh, and the music too.

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