'There are few living pianists who can match him in dexterity, power and daring. For heart-thumping virtuosity Hamelin is in a class of his own' (Classic CD)
'The virtuosity with which all this is despatched is exceptional' (BBC Record Review)
'Peu parmi les plus grands seraient capable d'être aussi rigoristes tout en étant aussi virtuoses' (Répertoire, France)
'These are musically and technically dazzling readings of some of the most demanding and poetic music ever written for the piano. They make me wonder if Liszt himself ever played them better! You rarely hear music-making of this calibre' (Hi Fi News)
No 1: Waldesrauschen [3'42]
Nuages gris S199 [3'27]
En rêve – Nocturne S207 [2'25]
'Hamelin does not conform to the stereotype of flamboyant Liszt pianists … [he] is content to let his technique do the talking, and his phenomenal control and articulation, his ability to keep a cool head while all hell is breaking loose underneath his fingers, give his performances a crystalline clarity.' So wrote Andrew Clements in The Guardian after Marc-André Hamelin's Wigmore Hall recital on 14 January 1996. This recording of his all-Liszt programme was made in the Hall on the same day and includes the pianist's own staggering cadenza to the Hungarian Rhapsody No 2.
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Most great men owe their salvation to the fact that their strength exists in a watertight compartment to which their weaknesses have no access. Liszt’s misfortune was that every element of strength in him was also, to some extent, a weakness.
Liszt never solved the problem of his dual nature; the seeming peace of his last years was due not to a solution of it but to a flight from it, a … tacit recognition that with a will so weak as his the problem was fundamentally insoluble.
Within his own soul he resigned himself to every kind of spiritual baseness, seeking refuge from his intellectual discontent, his mournful self-criticism, … in company that flattered him, in the exploitation of the rapidly growing legend of his saintliness, of his Franciscan renunciation of all that other men strive for in the world. The mask models itself more and more closely to the face, till in the end the natural lineaments and the play of their expression become almost completely hidden.
In 1934 Cassell & Co published Ernest Newman’s determined biographical effort to dispel the many myths attached to Liszt’s character [reissued by Victor Gollancz Ltd, London, 1970]. Ironically, the extracts above might be thought to betray a writer a little intoxicated by the acuity of his own psychological speculations, and hence a mind a shade too aware of its audience; but if such an irony exists that may be because we have already been partially convinced by the portrayal of his subject which Newman offers. In chapters significantly designated ‘The Duality of Liszt’s Soul’ and ‘The Actor’ we encounter much that compels us to reappraise the music in relation to ‘The Man Liszt’—Newman’s overall title.
The programme of works here performed by Marc-André Hamelin may be said to concentrate the mind particularly upon the ‘duality’ identified by Newman. While the attenuated and cryptic gestures of Nuages gris and En ręve all too plainly exclude the narcissism of an extrovert virtuosity in love with its effect upon an enslaved public, they gain in personal resonance and complexity if we accept Newman’s vision of them as an unhappy ‘by-product’: that is to say, as the expression of failure to reconcile unabated contradictions in temperament, not the relatively straightforward rejection of worldliness by an austerity in full (if forbidding) command of itself. Conversely, the stature of some of Liszt’s ostensibly shallower musical impulses may be illuminatingly enhanced once we admit the psychological possibility of the private nuage gris embryonically in wait even behind the elaborate technical artifice of the supposedly swaggering early operatic ‘paraphrases’. It may be overstating the case to suggest that Liszt himself was unsettled by any such awareness at the height of his early Parisian triumphs, for example; but, like Newman, we can speculate with some chance of accuracy, and in the process unearth the further tensions which exist between virtuoso performer and serious composer, between generous advocate of fellow composers and withering belittler of lesser men by displays of conscious superiority. In Liszt the arranger and transcriber we encounter a protean being who wears all these caps at one time or another.
In understanding the nature of Liszt’s activities as an arranger and borrower of other men’s work we must establish a distinction between the terms ‘transcription’ and ‘paraphrase’. The former indicates an objective recreative task in which the chosen work transfers bar-by-bar to a new instrumental medium without loss of its intrinsic character or change to its content. Compromise is thus at the service of the original composer insofar as it is used only for purposes of finding idiomatic parallels—of preserving the essential content by pragmatic minor alterations to its superficial dress. The term ‘paraphrase’, on the other hand, denotes an altogether more predatory process in which the first composer’s work is exploited by another creative intelligence to yield up an entirely new construction based loosely upon principal themes, motifs or dramatic elements. This approach clearly sees the first composer as ‘fair game’ for the unsolicited attentions of the second. As such it admits of the possibility of malevolence, not reverence, on the part of the ‘predator’. The heartless exercise of an almost smug artistic superiority can be detected in such paraphrases as the Waltz from Gounod’s Faust, a conceit where, in Sacheverell Sitwell’s memorable phrase, ‘Liszt must have seized upon this tune from the most popular opera of the day, determined to make its worldly success his excuse for committing every kind of sacrilege with its body, and yet lifting it, in doing this, on to a higher spiritual plane than it could ever aspire to on its own merits’ [Liszt, Cassell & Co, London, 1955]. The suggestion of a trump card unkindly played is enhanced when we learn that Liszt, dining with Gounod as a fellow guest of Princess Metternich in Paris in 1861, ‘… presented him with his waltz for dessert … to the great entertainment of those listening’ [Franz Liszt’s Letters, vol 3, edited by La Mara; quoted by Alan Walker in Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years, 1848–61, Faber & Faber, London, 1989].
These details hardly give us the whole story where Liszt’s paraphrases are concerned. His earliest almost certainly predate serious ambition as a composer and were created primarily to provide a virtuoso repertoire with which to dazzle audiences, while others such as the celebrated Réminiscences de Don Juan, heard on this recording, reflect the sincerest of delight in and admiration for their models. Those bearing the not infrequent ‘Réminiscences …’ label may be said to exercise the greatest structural freedom and subjectivity, a fact proceeding from their juxtaposition or even simultaneous use of motifs drawn from the much broader ‘canvas’ of an entire opera. Liszt’s capacity to justify their more concentrated deployment in terms of his own atmospheric continuity and structural coherence, as well as to recreate their intrinsic drama without the ‘prop’ of operatic spectacle and narrative, thus becomes a sine qua non. The measure of such an achievement is nowhere greater than in the Réminiscences de Don Juan, drawn from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and the numerous Verdi paraphrases, where it could be argued that the originals stood to lose most by any injudicious treatment. In the case of the Mozart recreation heard here Liszt’s imaginative response to an already immortal operatic model reaches its zenith. It is worth pointing out that, while the melodrama of Don Giovanni’s life and crimes may seem obvious fodder for the overtly histrionic side of a Liszt, the actual music of Mozart is certainly not. The precision, elegance and essential containment of the Classical tradition could so easily have been despoiled even in the act of responding faithfully to the unbridled and chaotic events which Mozart’s genius had paradoxically enabled them to portray, and yet Liszt achieves the seemingly impossible by harnessing a limitless pianistic inspiration to unerring tact and sympathy. What the piano enhances in its own terms is thus no more nor less in its essence than Mozart suggested—even Don Giovanni’s infamous destruction, where Liszt’s genius stands respectfully beside that of the earlier composer, not shamelessly in front of it.
Réminiscences de Don Juan stands close to the bar-by-bar transcriptions, both for reasons given and because the transcription of a dazzling orchestral tour de force such as the Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz demanded from Liszt no less an exercise of subjective pianistic wizardry than the paraphrases. In this context it is worth noting some evidence that the recreative procedures of the virtuoso pianist could be assessed by other artists in almost the same terms as wholly original composition. In the American pianist Amy Fay’s classic memoir, Music Study in Germany [Chicago, 1880; Dover Publications, 1965], the following posthumous assessment of Liszt’s favourite pupil Carl Tausig (1841–1871) may be found:
Tausig, in my opinion, did possess exceptional genius in composition, though he left but few works behind him to attest it. Prominent among these are his unique arrangements of … Strauss’s Waltzes. These ‘arrangements’ … could only have been the product of the highest mental force and culture, … brilliant and bewildering transcription – transfiguration rather … In a peculiar manner his music leaves a stamp upon the heart … If he had not original ideas of his own, he certainly possessed the power of putting an entirely new face on those of others.
The point has already been made that the finest transcriptions and paraphrases were those conditioned by a profound artistic respect for their models. As the duality of Liszt’s personality has been the theme hitherto, a further intriguing hint of conflicting motives should be noted. Liszt transcribed Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (in 1833, at the age of only twenty-one) with the avowed intention of helping to make popular the original work. He then paid for the printing of his transcription. In 1836 the following was witnessed by Sir Charles Hallé in Paris:
At an orchestral concert … conducted by Berlioz … the ‘March to the Scaffold’ from the … Fantastic Symphony … was performed, at the conclusion of which Liszt sat down and played his own arrangement … with an effect even surpassing that of the orchestra, and creating an indescribable furor. The feat had been duly announced in the programme beforehand, a proof of his indomitable courage [Life and Letters, London, 1896; quoted by Alan Walker in Franz Liszt: The Virtuoso Years, 1811–47, Faber & Faber, London, 1983].
In this reported context the transcription as an act of missionary zeal on another composer’s behalf was clearly redundant. While Hallé may have been as impressionable as all others in the face of the Liszt mystique, it is entirely to the point that Liszt could knowingly presume upon just such a reaction, and we do not learn whether the idea of this appearance was that of Berlioz (in any case probably permitted to feel indebted) or of Liszt himself. The suggestion of limelight-stealing uneasily persists behind acts of outward philanthropy, even where Liszt’s artistic respect for his beneficiary/victim was demonstrably genuine. That such a temperament is unlikely to live easily with itself may be more relevant to the misanthropy of the bleak late piano works than we can ever prove.
Contradictions and misconstructions of a purely circumstantial kind surround the Hungarian Rhapsodies, of which Marc-André Hamelin plays two lesser-known examples and the most celebrated of all, the Second in C sharp minor/F sharp major. In 1839 Liszt paid a visit to his native country. At this point Hungary was struggling to emerge in its own right from Austrian rule, and Liszt’s arrival played into the hands of all patriots desperate for national heroes as potential standard-bearers of a newly independent identity. The hyperbole attending Liszt’s reception was such as to provoke ridicule in the international press (largely blind to its political agenda). It was Liszt’s great personal misfortune to commit a faux pas in connection with this episode which was entirely innocent and well-intentioned. In 1840 he embarked upon a series of pieces, the Magyar Dalok and Magyar Rapszódiák (‘Hungarian National Melodies and Rhapsodies’), presenting revised versions between 1851 and 1853 under the collective new title Hungarian Rhapsodies. He had heard and witnessed gipsy musicians and had been profoundly stirred by their display of spontaneous virtuosity, incisive rhythm and freedom of spirit. The irony of his subsequent position was that, with the fascination of all virtuoso things uppermost, he had conceived an entirely sincere desire to respond on his own terms, in the process sensing that he was actually compiling a kind of national epic which would ultimately add up to very much more than the sum of its parts. His unwitting error is succinctly conveyed by Alfred Brendel [Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts, Robson, London, 1976]:
What the nineteenth century knew as Hungarian music seems to have been principally a conglomeration of gipsy style and ‘urban’ folk music. The gipsies helped themselves to the melodies of an Elemér-Szentirmay or a Kéler-Béla and assimilated them into their style of performance … Liszt made the mistake of crediting the gipsies for Hungarian national music; Hungary did not forgive him that for a very long time.
The predominant format of the Hungarian Rhapsodies is that of a slow, improvisatory first section (lassů) leading into a fast and rhythmically accentuated dance (a friska; the adjective is friss). Brendel further divides these for us by identifying three archetypes: ‘a defiantly or melancholically declamatory introduction, a coquettishly frisky Allegretto [‘frisky’ seemingly offering an unexpected etymological insight en passant], and a fiery, whirling Presto’. As he points out, the Thirteenth Rhapsody employs all three of these as well as presenting an opening theme ‘with a hint of somewhat Hebrew strain’. Its relatively brief friska incorporates the seemingly truncated three-bar phrase length which is such a pronounced feature of these works and their models in general. The Tenth Rhapsody begins in declamatory mode, presenting all manner of hazards in the form of scales in thirds or/and octaves and subsequently achieving an arabesque effect of particular delicacy before reaching an Allegretto capriccioso. A cadenza passage punctuated by spread chords imitates the cimbalom, the form of dulcimer habitually used in Hungarian music, before the main theme of the Allegretto returns and generates a terse but exciting climax.
The Second Rhapsody needs little introduction. Leaning initially more towards C sharp minor than to F sharp major, it incorporates a friska whose cumulative early effect perfectly suggests members of an ensemble listening, ‘catching on’, and one by one joining in. Three or four of its companion pieces equal the Second Rhapsody’s virtuosity and thematic diversity, but none surpasses it. Before the concluding page (Prestissimo) Liszt calls for a Cadenza ad libitum. It is not widely known that he did in fact supply two himself. His pupil Eugen d’Albert supplied a fine alternative (somewhat indebted to Liszt’s own), Rachmaninov produced a stupendous version of his own, and Vladimir Horowitz typically produced one which seems to synthesize all those he could conceivably have heard. As such a situation creates arguably unanswerable expectation among a live audience of connoisseurs, it is perhaps unsurprising that on the occasion of this recital Marc-André Hamelin defied all predictions. His own cadenza, an ingenious amalgam of thematic superimposition and bitonality, stretches compositional credibility less far than might be idly supposed (the seeds of Liszt’s late works such as the Czárdás macabre are present in the Rhapsodies), while yet defying the evidence of the senses on pyrotechnical grounds and providing a powerful ‘reminiscence’ of one of the greatest of all exponents of this repertoire, the late György Cziffra.
The Hungarian Rhapsodies underwent various revisions and continue to exist as such in print. In essence they date from the mid-1840s and belong alongside the ‘paraphrase’ works (Réminiscences de Don Juan, of 1841, postdates the ill-fated return to Hungary but not the actual appearance of the resultant works). In addition the strange, disillusioned late works have received passing mention. Their uncanny modernity and aphoristic restraint place them close to the mature miniatures of Scriabin and even of Bartók, thus showing that the subsequent march of history has answered as many questions as to Liszt’s prophetic significance as it has left unsolved concerning his complex psychology. At the other end of the present chronology lies the Apparition in F sharp major, the first of three pieces under this title, written in Brittany in 1834 when Liszt was staying with Lammenais, an influential priest, political agitator and author who had broken away from the Church after advocating its separation from matters of state. In his definitive study of Liszt, Alan Walker is surely right to see in these pieces the beginnings of authentic compositional potential and of a desire to be taken seriously on that basis. The key of F sharp major held a mystical significance for Liszt and this remarkable music anticipates the manner and style of the later Petrarch sonnet ‘settings’ for solo piano (related to actual vocal settings).
Liszt’s Douze Études d’Exécution Transcendante exist in three versions, of which the third (1851) is accepted as definitive. These studies are supplemented by the six Grandes Études de Paganini (1840; revised and republished along with the other set in 1851) and by a handful of other pieces designated as concert studies. Un Sospiro, almost certainly from 1848, enshrines one of Liszt’s most celebrated melodies, heard over a rolling arpeggiato accompaniment and arranged in such a way as to focus technical attention upon the problems of rapid hand-crossing. This is the third of three pieces, the others being Il Lamento and La Leggierezza. The other work heard here, Waldesrauschen (‘Forest Murmurs’), dates from 1862/3 and precedes a contrasted scherzando companion piece, Gnomenreigen. We thus encounter in this programme significant representative works from four more or less evenly separated periods in Liszt’s creative existence, in this final instance meeting the mature master at the height of his powers in a wholly original composition already at some remove from the world of the greatest paraphrases and transcriptions. Despite moments of elevated rhetoric the virtuosity is no longer self-serving, and the historical way forward to the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel is clear to see.
At the height of his fame as a virtuoso pianist Liszt claimed that he was to his piano ‘as an Arab to his steed’. Even then, one suspects, the inherent tensions and contradictions in his personality prevented this from being the whole truth. As Alan Walker eloquently puts it:
Music, for Liszt, was the voice of God. He often behaved as if music possessed healing properties … The musician himself was a specially chosen vessel through which divine revelation flowed … That is the real meaning of Liszt’s comment ‘For the formation of the artist, the first prerequisite is the improvement of the human being’. More than once he used the metaphor of the priest or acolyte.
Those who have sought to denigrate Liszt have found their task easy. The word ‘protean’ has already been used, and it is easy for the unconverted to imagine that everything this composer did was an assumption of yet another posture. Others as far apart in temperament and creative purpose as Scriabin and Herbert Howells have been described in print as self-regarding, and a unique figure such as Liszt suffers still from the easy gibe that beneath so many casually assumed attitudes lies very little that is genuine, consistent or enduring. One is reminded of the way in which the acting of Sir Laurence Olivier seemed to pour into each character something larger than life itself, accentuating a reportedly elusive, seemingly insubstantial private persona away from the stage; and the very point is in the perception of something reflecting doubtfully upon the ‘real’ man, not gloriously upon the incomparably varied achievement. That most fastidious of all composers, Maurice Ravel, replied once to a hostile charge of creative artifice with the immortal observation that it never seemed to occur to people how one might be artificial by nature. Perhaps here we come as close as we can to the divided, nomadic, studiedly debonair, chaotic existence of a Liszt. Ever anxious to impress in person, seemingly incapable of becoming to himself the superhuman he believed he had a moral duty to be for his art, from the first he may have had it in him to descend into the depths of loneliness and self-disillusionment from which his last sombre thoughts seem to have been written. As the poet Thomas Hood wrote,
There the true silence is, self-conscious and alone.
Francis Pott © 1997