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Hyperion Records

CDA67085 - Liszt: Sonata, Ballades & Polonaises
Romantic Landscape (1860) by Antal Ligeti (1823-1890)
Magyar Nemzeti Galéria, Budapest / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: November 1999
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: November 2000
Total duration: 78 minutes 10 seconds

'At last, Hough tackles Liszt’s Sonata on record and the result is as musicianly as this fine pianist’s admirers might expect' (Gramophone)

'Hough transforms the rumbling, chromatic bass line [Ballade No 2] into an almost terrifyingly atmospheric setting' (BBC Music Magazine)

'[A] beautifully rendered collection … the wonderful refinement and quiet poetry of his playing is a constant joy. A highly distinguished disc' (The Guardian)

‘This is a superlative recording, one that defies criticism. Hough’s pianism is evocative, spiritual, and technically and tonally scrupulous. What better compliment could be given than to say that this is the way one imagines these pieces might have sounded when Liszt himself played them? Recorded sound is ideal, and an excellent, detailed booklet adds to the value of this outstanding release’ (American Record Guide)

'Hough at his meticulous best' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Thoughtful, intelligent, and beautifully recorded too – a special release' (CDReview)

Sonata, Ballades & Polonaises
Allegro energico  [2'00]

This is what great Liszt records are made of. A selection of his finest piano music, with his most important piano work coupled with less well-known masterpieces, played by a pianist who combines all the necessary fire and virtuosity with ultra-sensitivity and refinement.

The B minor Sonata is one of the most important contributions to sonata form since Beethoven. Written as a single, expansive movement, utilizing Liszt's technique of thematic transformation, the Sonata is bold and forward-looking, and integrates enormous pianistic virtuosity into a profoundly original musical argument. Unusually for a composer who lavished poetic titles on so many of his works, revealing his literary or pictorial source of inspiration, Liszt said nothing about the B minor Sonata. Many believe it to be a portrayal of the characters in Goethe's Faust, others think it represents the different facets of Liszt's character. Truly great music can sustain a variety of interpretative responses, and Liszt's Sonata—one of the most powerful works to come out of the nineteenth century—is no exception.

The remaining works, although their titles are inextricably associated with Chopin, are most striking for Liszt's daring originality. The Second Polonaise, which was recorded by Rachmaninov, used to be a great favourite, while the Second Ballade is one of Liszt's finest works, with a magnificent sense of narrative drive and some of Liszt's most opulent rhetoric.

Stephen Hough needs little introduction as a Liszt pianist of extraordinary flair, passion and intelligence.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Few composers arouse such mixed emotions as Franz Liszt. In 1934 two biographies presented the flip-sides of the Liszt coin: Ernest Newman’s book The Man Liszt portrayed the composer’s life as ‘the tragi-comedy of a soul divided against itself’, while Sacheverell Sitwell’s evocative but factually unreliable Liszt provided an eloquent counter-statement in Liszt’s defence. Modern scholarship, a freer acceptance of the virtues and limitations of Liszt’s art, and a wider knowledge of his broad spectrum of works, have helped to clarify some of the problematic issues raised by Liszt’s music. For much of the last century Liszt was viewed as a peripheral figure of nineteenth-century music, a charlatan who composed from the outside rather than from within, sporting an array of masks in his quest to win over his audience, and later an eccentric who grew ever more disillusioned and composed with one eye firmly on posterity. The chief charge, in short, is that Liszt was insincere (this is the central thrust of Newman’s thesis). Yet although Liszt became increasingly isolated during his final years, primarily as a result of a series of personal tragedies and professional disappointments, he is now considered to be one of the most important composers, perhaps the central figure, of musical Romanticism.

Liszt’s life spanned the nineteenth century from post-‘Emperor’ Beethoven to the early years of Stravinsky; he was a man of unparalleled energy and innovation who produced a body of work voluminous in quantity and rich in poetic scope. Such a prodigious output is bound to be somewhat uneven; it is hardly surprising if a composer at the leading edge of artistic exploration occasionally produces works where a sense of experiment outweighs one of achievement. Moreover, he was a composer who was also the most charismatic performer of his generation, and inevitably many of Liszt’s early works were written as vehicles for his own virtuosity. When isolated from such a magnetic stage personality they can lose much of their communicative force and conviction and their daring originality can easily be vulgarized to rhetorical bombast. Liszt’s effects depend to an unusual degree on instrumental characteristics and sonority; few composers have been so reliant on their performers, and few have been so frequently let down. When composing for the piano, Liszt—even after he abandoned his concert career at the age of thirty-five—essentially wrote for himself.

Between 1839, when he embarked on a series of concerts to raise funds for the Beethoven monument in Bonn, and 1847, when he toured Transylvania, Liszt unfolded what was in effect the most fantastic and spectacular concert tour in the history of performance. He traversed Europe performing a wide range of the piano literature (as it then existed)—as well as introducing many important orchestral works through his sensational piano transcriptions—to packed houses of three thousand or more. He created such a frenzy of adulation that in 1841 Heine coined the term ‘Lisztomania’. And then, in September 1847, he stopped. After giving his last performance at Elisavetgrad he moved to Weimar, where in February 1848 he took up a conducting post offered by the grand duke. He rarely played the piano in public again, and never for a fee. To the music-loving public it was an incomprehensible decision. His itinerant lifestyle, travelling before the age of the railway, was exhausting of course, and the pressure of giving 150 concerts a year as well as continuing to compose new works and arrangements for his adoring public was intense. But if ever a musician seemed (to his contemporary public at least) ill-suited to the demands and constraints of a court position, it was surely Liszt.

With hindsight, of course, Liszt’s decision is thoroughly vindicated. Even though his spell at Weimar ended in disappointment (he left in 1859, having lost the support of both his patron and his public), the 1850s was one of his most productive decades, and saw the composition of many of his finest works. He arrived at Weimar with trunks full of manuscripts, and meticulously revised many of his youthful works (including the Études d’exécution transcendante and the first two books of Années de pèlerinage, among the staples of the Lisztian repertoire). And, of course, he simply could not have composed a work such as the Piano Sonata during his years as a touring virtuoso.

The B minor Piano Sonata is generally accepted to be Liszt’s greatest work for the piano, and one of the most important contributions to the post-Beethovenian piano sonata. Alan Walker believes that ‘if Liszt had written nothing else, he would have to be ranked as a master on the strength of this work alone’. Although sketches for extracts of the Sonata date from some years earlier, the piece was fully worked out in a relatively concentrated span in late 1852 and early 1853 (the manuscript was finished, according to Liszt’s inscription, on 2 February 1853). Liszt dedicated it to Robert Schumann, a reciprocal gesture for Schumann’s dedication to Liszt of his C major Fantasy in 1839.

The Sonata is built on a small number of pregnant thematic cells, which—elaborated, transformed and variously juxtaposed—underpin both the foreground melodic shapes and the background structural organization. The first thematic tag—the tonally ambiguous, modally inflected descending scales that open the Sonata—acts as a dramatic structural signpost, equivalent to a curtain between the acts of a play. Two other principal ideas are also presented on the opening page, the first a leaping octave declamation (‘Allegro energico’), the second a Mephistophelean gesture characterized by its repeated notes. The way Liszt develops and combines these ideas lies at the heart of the work’s power and cohesion: the dramatic recontextualizations of the basic thematic material, enabled by Liszt’s unparalleled feeling for instrumental texture and his unprecedented elevation of pianistic sonority to a level of structural operation, are the lifeblood of the Sonata. Liszt’s genius for creating musical character, and his emphasis on varying and contrasting his characterization through a process of thematic metamorphosis, forced him to create new formal structures to accommodate his musical arguments. ‘New wine demands new bottles’ was Liszt’s phrase, yet he has possibly received more credit for the bottles than for the wine. Of course Liszt’s formal innovations are important, but his most lasting influence stems from his renewal of the musical language.

After a long transitional passage and a more agitated statement of the opening descending scale, we reach a grandioso theme that fulfils the function of the second subject in the relative major key of D. Here Liszt introduces a three-note motif (rising a tone, then a minor third) that is the same as the first three notes of the plainsong ‘Vexilla Regis prodeunt’. This idea is known as Liszt’s ‘Cross-motif’, and it can also be found in some of his religious works, including the oratorio The Legend of St Elisabeth, the ‘Gran’ Mass and Via Crucis. Although many performers reject the notion, it has been suggested that the presence of this motif adds a religious dimension to the Sonata, and this is only the beginning of the multifarious attempts to pin extra-musical associations to the work. The most prevalent is that Liszt intended a musical depiction of Goethe’s Faust, with distinct themes for Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles—this view was, according to Liszt’s grand-pupil Claudio Arrau, taken for granted by Liszt’s pupils. But, unusually for a composer who otherwise shunned purely generic titles, and who believed that revealing the extra-musical source of inspiration gave a deeper insight into the intended spirit of the work, Liszt said nothing about the B minor Sonata, and the work is surely the more profound for the variety of interpretative viewpoints it sustains.

Part of the Sonata’s fascination is the way it unfolds two layers of structure simultaneously. As with Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy (a work Liszt knew well, having arranged it for piano and orchestra in 1851), Liszt alludes to a traditional four-movement structure within the Sonata’s single extended movement. The ‘Andante sostenuto’ and ‘Quasi Adagio’ fulfil the dual role of slow movement and development section (track 7), and the following fugato acts as a scherzo third movement and a continuing development (contrapuntal intensification being a common developmental procedure, track 8), which moves seamlessly into the recapitulation / finale at the return to B minor (bars 533, track 9). After the hugely virtuosic ‘Prestissimo’ climax, and a shattering pause, follows one of the most sublime passages in the entire piano literature (track 10). Liszt had notorious difficulty finding effective endings for some of his most flamboyant works (those to the Don Juan and Norma paraphrases, for example, are strikingly anti-climactic), and he originally wrote a loud conclusion to the Sonata; the quiet, benediction-like epilogue, reuniting the main themes in a wonderfully fulfilling manner, was an inspired afterthought.

After Chopin’s death in 1849 Liszt composed a number of works in genres inextricably associated with the great Polish composer. However, although Chopin’s death may have acted as an inspiration to pay homage by writing in genres dominated by Chopin’s masterpieces, the timing is partly coincidental. Liszt, as we have seen, ceased his life as an itinerant virtuoso shortly before Chopin died, and once settled in Weimar he began exploring numerous new avenues of composition. Furthermore, his new companion at this time was the Princess Carolyne von Sayn Wittgenstein, herself a Pole, which provides an added explanation for Liszt’s new interest in exploring Polish forms. Liszt was at this time, however, immersed in Chopin’s life and work: he was with Carolyne’s help writing a book on Chopin, an unprecedented tribute from one composer to another which was published 1852, and for him to pen his own ideas in genres that Chopin had made so familiar is perhaps unsurprising. Nevertheless, although the remaining works on this disc are linked to Chopin through their titles, as well as their occasional intertextual allusions and, in the case of the Berceuse, an almost plagiaristic borrowing of conception, their most immediate feature is Liszt’s striking originality. Whatever the level of homage Liszt intended, his musical aims and procedures are very different from Chopin’s.

Liszt’s two Polonaises were composed in 1851, and although superficially they contain many Chopinesque turns of phrase they have little in common with the Pole’s famous models, beyond their titles and use of rhythm. Liszt entitled the expansive Polonaise No 1 ‘mélancolique’ (although this is suppressed in most editions), and it is an epic work, entirely different in character from its more famous companion. Despite Liszt’s way of surrounding the melodic line with intricate decorative filigree (itself a Chopinesque trait), this is an essentially gloomy, introspective work. The C minor tonality is relieved by a major-key section, although the underlying angst is never entirely alleviated. Polonaise No 2, in E major, has always been the more popular, and its thematic invention and sprightly rhythmic liveliness, as well as its engaging pianistic fireworks, have ensured its continued place in the concert hall. Like the First Ballade, it is built on a technique of character variation, with each new thematic presentation being adorned with more flamboyant pyrotechnics. Although less frequently played now than it was some years ago, the E major Polonaise still holds a firm place in the repertoire—all too easily hammed up, it remains a work of compelling directness.

Liszt’s Berceuse is the most interesting example of his relationship with Chopin’s style, embodying imitation almost to the point of plagiarism. Chopin’s own Berceuse—also in D flat major, also built on increasingly elaborate variations on a simple four-bar theme, also unfolding over a sustained tonic pedal-point—is clearly Liszt’s model. In fact, the situation is rather more complicated as Liszt’s piece exists in two very different versions, the first written in 1854, and the second in 1863. The first version (recorded here) is actually simpler in conception than Chopin’s Berceuse, largely free from florid embellishment and therefore lacking one of the defining features of Chopin’s work. The more familiar second version, while it retains the harmonic plan and the melodic basis of the original, is saturated with an almost overwhelming amount of filigree decoration, and is also much longer. In its simpler guise, Liszt’s Berceuse is a tranquil, contemplative work, akin to the Consolations in its quality of unspoilt innocence.

Composed between 1845 and 1848 (i.e., before Chopin’s death), the Ballade No 1 is a sadly underrated work. The subtitle ‘Le chant du croisé’ (‘croisé’ means ‘crusader’ rather than ‘cross’) suggests an underlying narrative that Liszt declined to elaborate further, but the work is an evocation of the period of the Crusades (which given Liszt’s Catholicism is an apt subject). The initial rising motif alludes strongly to the opening of Chopin’s First Ballade, a debt that must have been conscious on Liszt’s part, while the answering idea is a scherzo-like gesture that seems to confirm the key of D major. The main body of the work, however, is cast as a set of character variations on the crusader’s ‘song’ in D flat major, with a joyfully heroic march as a middle section, replete with ‘rapido con bravura’ scales and other virtuoso intricacies.

The more substantial Ballade No 2 is one of Liszt’s finest piano works. It has been linked with the story of Hero and Leander, but it is more generally accepted to have been inspired by Gottfried Bürger’s ballad Lenore. Sacheverell Sitwell found in the work ‘great happenings on an epic scale, barbarian invasions, cities in flames—tragedies of public, rather than private, import’. Composed in the spring of 1853, shortly after the completion of the Sonata, the Second Ballade is a continuation of Liszt’s thoughts in the key of B minor, and similarly explores subtle methods of thematic transformation to achieve a range of evocative moods, bonded by their motivic coherence. The exposition comprises a darkly ominous chromatic undertow to a rising scalic motif, contrasted (via a memorable harmonic punctuation) by a sunnier ‘Allegretto’ theme in chords. Liszt then repeats the exposition a semitone lower, in B flat minor—this is a common formal device in Liszt’s music—before, as in the First Ballade, he includes a march. The magnificent sense of narrative drama, as well as the opulent rhetoric—the characteristic Lisztian sonorities including powerful broken octaves, sky-rocketing scales, and a passage that must have been an inspiration for the cadenza to Grieg’s Piano Concerto—are enhanced by the magical thematic metamorphosis that conjures a beautiful quasi-operatic melody (at 12'08). Here, in many respects, is the essence of Liszt’s creativity—the skilful manipulation of thematic ideas, the fusion of drama and lyricism, the innovative approach to instrumental texture and formal architecture, and the centrality of pianistic virtuosity to the music’s expressive vocabulary.

Tim Parry © 2000

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