L is for Liszt

by Dr Michael Low

A second article on this giant of piano music 

According to all reliable accounts, Liszt was the first true celebrity pianist in the history of Western art music. He was the embodiment of the Romantic Era: the sublime and the ridiculous, the diabolical and the virtuous, the transcendental and the mediocre, and no other composer in the 19th century had as diverse a compositional output. Liszt’s physical beauty, musical gift and striking stage persona combined for an intoxicating cocktail of the visionary, genius, sex, lust, snobbery, vanity, religion and literature. In short, he was Faust, Mephisto, Casanova, Byron, Mazeppa and St Francis all in one. Had cyberspace and social media existed in the 19th century, the tagline for Liszt would probably have been #Sex #Drugs #Classical Music #FranzLiszt.

Liszt was the first musician to have the piano placed in profile, so that the audience would be able to see his facial expression. He was also the first pianist to perform from memory, flouting the traditional view that to perform without music is a sign of disrespect to the composer. As a composer, Liszt’s output consists of over one thousand works. And until today only the Australian pianist Leslie Howard has recorded all of Liszt’s piano works (for Hyperion). Liszt’s one-movement symphonic poems, as well as the late piano pieces, were seen by many as works which were to have significant influence on the next generation of composers. Some argued that Liszt’s experimental use of harmonies (in particular in the late works) was prophetic in its foreshadowing of atonality, paving the way for the works of Scriabin, Debussy and Schoenberg in the early part of the 20th century.

LisztLiszt’s life and music have been the subject of numerous film adaptations. On one hand, Charles Vidor’s Song Without End (1960) won an Academy Award for Best Musical Score, as well as a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture. On the other hand, Ken Russell’s Lisztomania (1975), based on the novel Nélida, written by Liszt’s first important mistress, the Countess Marie d’Agoult, was notorious for its re-imagining of Wagner as a vampire (yes you read that correctly…) and its use of giant phalluses, reminiscent of Japan’s Shinto Kanamara Matsuri. One of the 20th century’s greatest pianist, Sviatoslav Richter, played the role of Franz Liszt in the 1952 Russian film entitled The Composer Glinka, while Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody in C Sharp Minor was immortalised by the evergreen animated duo of Tom and Jerry.

Recommended listening (all of which can be found on YouTube)

Années de Pèlerinage (Books 1 and 2): Lazar Berman

Vallée d’Obermann (from the 1st Book of Années de Pèlerinage): Claudio Arrau

Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este (from the 3rd Book of Années de Pèlerinage): Claudio Arrau

Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses): Claudio Arrau

Two Legends: St François d’Assise: La prédication aux oiseaux and St François de Paule marchant sur les flots: Alfred Brendel

Mephisto Waltz No. 1: Evgeny Kissin

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C Sharp Minor: Benno Moiseiwitsch

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 in D Flat Major: Martha Argerich

Liebestraume No. 3 in A flat Major: Frederic Lamond

Études de concert No. 2 in F Minor (La leggierezza): Martha Argerich

Études de concert No.3 in D Flat Major (Un sospiro): Frederic Lamond

6 Grandes Études de Paganini: Andre Watts (Live Recording from Japan 1988)

12 Études d’exécution trancendente: Lazar Berman (Live Recording from Milan 1976)

12 Études d’exécution trancendente: Boris Berezovsky (Live Recording from Roque d’Antheron 2002)

Études d’exécution trancendente No. 5 in B Flat Major (Feux Follet): Vladimir Ashkenazy

Ballade No.2 in B Minor: Vladimir Horowitz (Live Recording from The Met 1981)

Piano Sonata in B minor: Mikhail Pletnev

Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Flat Major: Martha Argerich

Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major: Sviatoslav Richter

Piano Transcription of Beethoven’s An die Ferne Geliebte: Louis Lortie

Piano Transcription of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture: Jorge Bolet

Piano Transcription of Isolde’s Liebestod (from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde): Michael Low

 

As a teenager, Michael Low studied piano under the guidance of Richard Frostick before enrolling in London’s prestigious Centre for Young Musicians, where he studied composition with the English composer Julian Grant, and piano with the internationally acclaimed pedagogue Graham Fitch. During his studies at Surrey University in England, Michael made his debut playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the 1999 Guildford International Music Festival, before graduating with Honours under the tutelage of Clive Williamson. In 2000, Michael obtained his Masters in Music (also from Surrey University), specialising in music criticism, studio production and solo performance under Nils Franke. An international scholarship brought Michael to the University of Cape Town, where he resumed his studies with Graham Fitch. During this time, Michael was invited to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto for The Penang Governer’s Birthday Celebration Gala Concert. In 2009, Michael obtained his Doctorate in Music from the University of Cape Town under the supervision of Hendrik Hofmeyr. His thesis set out to explore the Influence of Romanticism on the Evolution of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. Michael has also worked with numerous eminent teachers and pianists, including Nina Svetlanova, Niel Immelman, Frank Heneghan, James Gibb, Phillip Fowke, Renna Kellaway, Carolina Oltsmann, Florian Uhlig, Gordon Fergus Thompson, Francois du Toit and Helena van Heerden.

Michael currently holds teaching positions in two of Cape Town’s exclusive education centres: Western Province Preparatory School and Herschel School for Girls. He is very much sought after as a passionate educator of young children.