Étude in G minor 'Tremolo' [4'36]
Étude in E major 'Arpeggio' [2'00]
Étude in E major 'La chasse' [2'53]
Grande marche [12'10]
Grande marche caractéristique [10'11]
Marc-André Hamelin returns to Liszt with this imperious recording, containing works based on music by two composers who were a great influence on the young composer/pianist: the Paganini Etudes and three Schubert Marches.
Paganini was the foremost virtuoso of his day, on any instrument, and having heard him in Paris in 1832 Liszt was determined to replicate his showmanship and mastery on the piano. His Etudes, based on Paganini's infamous Caprices (the nearest the violinist came to notating in full the extraordinary acrobatics he often improvised on stage), are the culmination of this early creative spark. Marc-André Hamelin plays the final 1851 version.
Liszt was devoted to Schubert, and transcribed many of his songs for piano, as well as marches and other works; the three marches on this disc are based on various rarely heard Schubert marches for piano duet. Marc-André Hamelin's virtuosity is both nonchalant and dazzling, and he brings wit and sparkle to the Paganini Etudes, and great power and architechtural control to the Schubert Marches. A must for piano lovers everywhere.
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Paris, March 1831, and the talk of the French capital was the appearance of ‘the hitherto unrivalled Paganini’. The Times correspondent was at a loss as to how to describe the phenomenon. ‘He has performed thrice at the Académie Royale de Musique, and each time with increasing applause. Language cannot do justice to his wonderful exertion. […] New powers are given to the instrument, which even the most eminent musicians declare, they were not aware was in its compass. He plays entirely from memory, without the intervention of a desk between him and his enchanted listeners. His appearance is singular and denotes the enthusiast [sic]. Strong black hair curls in profusion round his face, which is of an ashy paleness. His eyes flash fire, his nostrils appear distended, and could we hide the organ from which he produces such magic tones, he would be an excellent representative of a prophet foretelling the future.’
Such was the impression that the legendary Italian virtuoso created at his Paris debut. A year later he was back in the city, then in the grip of a cholera epidemic, for a further nine concerts. It was then, and with no less astonishment, that the young Franz Liszt first heard the great violinist on 22 April 1832 at a benefit concert in the Opéra given for ‘the victims of the cruel scourge which is ravaging the capital’. Liszt was not yet twenty-one and the sight and sound of Paganini struck him like a coup de foudre. He was mesmerised. No musician before Paganini had been able to combine the supreme mastery of an instrument with hypnotic dramatic power to such an extent, enabling him to rouse an audience to a frenzy of enthusiasm. It was the catalyst for which Liszt had been searching. ‘René, what a man, what a violinist, what an artist!’ Liszt wrote to a friend in Geneva. ‘Heavens! What sufferings, what misery, what tortures in those four strings.’ Remarkable as his own technique was, Liszt realised that compared with Paganini’s wizardry he had much to learn. He resolved consciously to turn himself into the pianistic equivalent of the demonic Italian. A few days after Paganini’s third concert (27 April), he penned this to another friend, Pierre Wolff, on 2 May 1832: ‘For this fortnight my mind and my fingers have worked like two damned ones. Homer, the Bible, Plato, Locke, Byron, Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Beethoven, Bach, Hummel, Mozart, Weber, are all around me. I study them, meditate on them, devour them furiously. In addition, I practice exercises for four or five hours (thirds, sixths, octaves, and tremolos, repeated notes, cadenzas, etc.). Ah, unless I go mad, you will find an artist in me. Yes, an artist such as you desire, such as is required nowadays.’
This, then, is the background to the composition of the Six Grandes Etudes de Paganini. The first fruit of his Paganini-inspired labours was the Grande Fantaisie de bravoure sur La Clochette de Paganini (S420) which appeared in 1832. It utilises material from the last movement of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No 2 in B minor. Its main theme, itself based on an old Italian melody, is familiar from Paganini’s inclusion of a little bell in the score (hence its nickname of ‘La Clochette’ and, in Liszt’s later study using the same theme, ‘La Campanella’). The ‘Clochette’ fantasy remains one of the most extraordinarily difficult works ever written for the piano but, as Busoni noted, ‘ the work shows an original mind peeping through, a constrained emotion struggling for expression’. There are spiccato effects and terrifying leaps with which Liszt sought to simulate Paganini’s dizzying violin feats.
Liszt published his Six études d’exécution transcendante d’après Paganini in 1838. They can reasonably be claimed to mark the birth of keyboard virtuosity. He followed this set in 1845 with the Carnival de Venise and a second fantasy using the ‘Clochette’ theme, finally introducing a revised version of the six studies (the version presented here and retitled Six Grandes Etudes de Paganini) in 1851. Numbers 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 are versions of Paganini’s Twenty-four Caprices Op 1 for solo violin, composed between 1800 and 1810, but not published until 1820. In part a homage to the similarly titled Twenty-four Caprices by Pietro Locatelli (1695–1764), Paganini’s set is a sui generis compendium of the violin’s utmost resources with a profusion of daring melodic and physical leaps, multiple stops, spectacular passagework and challenging arco and pizzicato combinations. Among the effects Paganini asks for are ricochet (bouncing several notes on a bow), martellato (a ‘hammered’ stroke) and guitar-like tremolos (Paganini was a virtuoso on this instrument, too). Only No 3 of the Paganini-Liszt studies derives its material from elsewhere: the ‘clochette/campanella’ theme from the Second Violin Concerto.
Both the 1838 and 1851 sets were dedicated to ‘Frau Dr. Clara Schumann’ (despite her ingratitude), whose husband had been the first composer to transfer Paganini’s Caprices to the piano. Robert Schumann’s more literal Six Studies after Caprices by Paganini, Op 3, had appeared in 1832, followed by a further six (a rather more imaginative set, Op 10) in 1833. But Schumann was generous enough to write fulsomely of his friend’s superior accomplishment. ‘The collection is probably the most difficult ever written for the pianoforte, as its original is the most difficult work that exists for the violin. Paganini knew this well, and expressed it in his fine short dedication, “agli artisti”—that is to say, “I am only accessible to artists”. And so it is with Liszt’s pianoforte arrangement; this can only be understood by virtuosos in profession and of rank. […] He who is able to master [the variations of Etude No 6], and in such an easy, sportive manner that they glide past the hearer—as they should—like the scenes from a marionette show, may travel securely round the world, to return crowned with the golden laurels of a second Liszt-Paganini.’
The studies are listed with the nicknames that have become attached to them in some quarters.
No 1 in G minor (‘Tremolo’) based on Paganini Caprices Nos 5 and 6
No 2 in E flat major (‘Octave’) based on Paganini Caprice No 17
No 3 in G sharp minor (‘La Campanella’) based on the Rondo (third movement) of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No 2 in B minor
No 4 in E major (‘Arpeggio’) based on Paganini Caprice No 1
No 5 in E major (‘La Chasse’) based on Paganini Caprice No 9
No 6 in A minor (‘Theme and variations’) based on Paganini Caprice No 24
Franz Schuberts Märsche für das Pianoforte übertragen S426 (1846)
A glance at the list of Liszt’s published works tells you that no composer’s music, other than his own, inspired more transcriptions and arrangements than Franz Schubert. Even his severest critics would be hard pressed not to agree that his fifty-three ‘partitions de piano’ of Schubert’s songs rank as masterpieces of their kind; it is difficult, too, not to fall for the charm of the Soirées de Vienne, nine elaborations of waltzes by Schubert, at least one of which, more often than not, Liszt would include in his recitals. In addition, there are solo piano arrangements of Schubert’s Divertissement à la hongroise, D818 (three pieces, the first and third of substantial length, retitled by Liszt as Mélodies hongroises, S425), both two-piano and piano-and-orchestra arrangements of the mighty ‘Wanderer’ Fantasie, D760, as well as versions of seven songs for voice and orchestra, and the works that Mr Hamelin plays here.
As Sacheverell Sitwell observes (Liszt, Cassell & Co, 1955), ‘Schubert and Liszt is a particularly happy chapter in the immense chronicle of Liszt’s works. […] It was a music which recalled the days of his own earliest youth, when he left his native Hungary for Vienna and stayed there breathing the same air as Beethoven and Schubert, studying with Salieri who had been the rival of Mozart.’ Though we cannot tell how much of Schubert’s music he heard at the time ‘it is, at least, certain that [Liszt and Schubert] actually met, for he was introduced to him by Randhartinger. But there can be no doubt that the music of Schubert had an additional appeal to him because it spoke to him of the simplicities of an older world.’
The Drei Märsche von Franz Schubert, which appeared in 1846, are dedicated to Liszt’s friend, the Franco-Polish pianist [Henri Louis Stanislav] Mortier de Fontaine (1816–1883). They are based on various rarely heard Schubert marches for piano duet; Liszt’s two-hand versions are played even less frequently.
The first of these, Trauermarsch (‘Funeral March’), is a faithful transcription of March No 5 in E flat minor from Schubert’s 6 Grandes Marches, Op 40 (D819).
The Grande Marche, which follows, opens with March No 3 in B minor from the same set and is marked Allegretto fuocoso. However, the Trio (più moderato in B major) is taken from Schubert’s Grande Marche funèbre, Op 55 (D859), composed in 1825 for the death of Tsar Alexander I of Russia, a theme which returns at the coda.
The final Grande Marche caractéristique is a conflation of parts of four different Schubert marches. The opening is a transcription of the first of Schubert’s two Marches caractéristiques in C major, Op posth. 121 (D886) composed in about 1826. After the trio section of the first march, Liszt moves to the trio from the second of these two marches before reverting to the 6 Grandes Marches, D819—the opening portion of the March No 2 in G minor and the trio from No 1 in E flat.
Such was his passion for these pieces that, in 1859, Liszt published orchestral versions of all three marches, adding the Marche hongroise (the second of the Divertissements à la hongroise), to form his Vier Märsche von Franz Schubert, S363. A short time later, he then re-arranged all four for piano duet (4 Marches, S632). Such devotion! Such generosity! Where did he find the time?
Jeremy Nicholas © 2002