Please wait...

Hyperion Records

CDA67760 - Liszt: Piano Sonata
The Castle of Dévény, Hungary by János Hofbauer (1803-1846)
Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67760

Recording details: August 2010
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: April 2011
DISCID: 8A129B0A
Total duration: 79 minutes 19 seconds

GRAMOPHONE CRITICS' CHOICE 2011

'Hamelin is a musician of intellectual rigour, for whom playing all the notes better than almost anyone else is just the start. The Liszt Sonata is a veritable Becher's Brook for pianists but he sails over it with ease, showing that this music has depth as well as superficial glitter … this is one of the most penetrating Liszt recitals to have emerged in several years' (The Mail on Sunday)

'Even by Marc-André Hamelin's standards this Liszt recital is a towering achievement. In the Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H the opening idea emerges as if from a cloud of sulphur and, while Hamelin's technique is superhuman and magisterial, there is never a question of virtuosity for its own sake … in short, this is a pianist to trump all aces. Hyperion's sound and presentation are as immaculate as ever' (Gramophone)

'The world isn't short of pianists with an ultra-fluent technique. Even so, Marc-André Hamelin is a phenomenon: such rippling evenness of tone, flawless clarity, and rapid-fire precision together suggest something of what contemporary accounts tell us Liszt's own playing was like' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Hamelin gives a cogent, dramatic account of the B minor Sonata, drawing on Liszt’s virtuosity in terms of tonal variety and technique to capitalise on the sonata’s shifts of mood. Liszt’s expressive spectrum is cleverly explored in the companion pieces as well, Hamelin using both power and poetry to underline his gifts as a Liszt exponent' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Even amidst the plethora of fine pianists currently performing, Marc-André Hamelin has established a formidable reputation at so many levels, in terms of musicianship, of virtuosity and technical prowess … needless to say, Hamelin's performance of Liszt's Piano Sonata yields nothing in transcendental virtuosity, even by comparison with the likes of Argerich's barn-storming account for DG … Hamelin's double octave passagework is almost clinical in its brilliance, in tone and evenness, while the right-hand octave passagework that precedes the coda is truly tumultuous in effect … a very formidable release which I can wholeheartedly recommend' (International Record Review)

'Hamelin takes everything in his stride immaculately, whether it's the unfolding of the contrapuntal lines in the B-A-C-H Fantasy and Fugue or the fine-spun melodies of the Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, both superbly presented' (The Guardian)

Piano Sonata
Canzone  [3'06]
Tarantella  [9'22]
Allegro energico  [1'50]

This year, April is Hamelin month at Hyperion; not content with giving us another blockbuster addition to the Romantic Piano Concerto series, the pianist gives us his contribution to the Liszt bicentenary.

The Liszt Sonata is undoubtedly one of the peaks of the repertoire, and recordings are suitably copious, but when an artist of Hamelin’s virtuoso pedigree wishes to tackle it no excuse need be made for an additional version. The recital opens with a lesser-known masterwork, the Fantasy and Fugue on B-A-C-H, and for light relief there is Liszt’s scintillating supplement to his Italian Année de Pèlerinage, the three pieces of Venezia e Napoli, but perhaps the emotional core of the recital is Liszt’s intensely spiritual Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude.

This is a major Liszt recital from one of today’s most admired recording artists.


Other recommended albums
'Alkan: Concerto for solo piano' (CDA67569)
Alkan: Concerto for solo piano
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67569 
'Ives & Barber: Piano Sonatas' (CDA67469)
Ives & Barber: Piano Sonatas
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67469 
'Chopin: Piano Sonatas Nos 2 & 3' (CDA67706)
Chopin: Piano Sonatas Nos 2 & 3
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67706 
'Reger: Piano Music' (CDA66996)
Reger: Piano Music
Buy by post £10.50 CDA66996  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'Scriabin: Complete Piano Sonatas' (CDA67131/2)
Scriabin: Complete Piano Sonatas
Buy by post £20.00 CDA67131/2  2CDs  

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
On 31 May 1861 Franz Liszt received some unexpected but welcome news from France. In prose that itself almost beamed with delight, he wrote to his partner Princess Wittgenstein to say that he had been elevated to the rank of Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur by the Emperor Napoléon III—an honour granted to very few musicians. But what pleased Liszt most of all was ironically not the award itself, but the fact that the official citation had described him simply as a composer, with no mention at all of his fame as a pianist. Some caustic Parisian gossip nevertheless claimed that it was only Liszt’s touching performance of Chopin’s Funeral March to the recently bereaved Empress Eugénie that had won him this new status, and not his allegedly incomprehensible compositions; but for Liszt, the citation genuinely seemed like a long-awaited vindication.

It was certainly true that a decade or so earlier ‘composer’ would hardly have been the first term that came to mind when Liszt was mentioned. ‘Pianist’ might have been the most popular choice, although some less charitable individuals may have come up with ‘tireless self-publicist’, or even ‘celebrated philanderer’. Liszt’s transformation into a composer first and foremost had, in fact, only taken place in the years from 1848, when he withdrew from the hectic life of a touring virtuoso and settled down as Kapellmeister in the small town of Weimar. There he intended to create a body of original compositions worthy of his talent. It was, in fact, high time. He was already in his late thirties, and had previously been pigeonholed merely as a pianist of genius who persisted—against all published evidence—in the harmless but bizarre delusion that he was also a great composer.

Even an admired colleague like Robert Schumann was largely of the same opinion, pointedly writing in a review of Liszt’s Grandes Études that the author’s development as a creative artist lagged sadly behind his talents as a performer. And Liszt, in private, was forced to agree. When Schumann dedicated his wonderful Op 17 Fantasy to Liszt in 1839, the latter felt keenly that he had nothing of similar quality to offer in return. Reciprocal requirements were partly fulfilled by the dedication of Liszt’s Paganini Studies to Schumann’s beloved Clara Wieck, but it was not until 1854, when he published his magnificent Sonata in B minor, that Liszt finally felt confident of having composed a piano piece to match Schumann’s Fantasy. It was, by then, too late. Robert Schumann was languishing in an asylum in Endenich, and never heard the great music dedicated to him. It was left only to Clara to record a personal reaction to Liszt’s Sonata: ‘truly terrible’. ‘And now’, she lamented, ‘I’m even expected to thank him for it!’

Clara’s comments turned out to represent the dissenting opinion on Liszt’s Sonata, which is now accepted as one of the masterpieces of nineteenth-century music. Justly proud of his achievement, Liszt would frequently perform it for visitors in Weimar (one of whom was the young Brahms, who promptly nodded off—he was of a mind with Clara here), along with some other works that represented his music at its most inspired. Several of these are collected on the present disc. Even though Liszt certainly knew every note by heart, he would ostentatiously play from the published scores, to demonstrate that these were properly ‘composed’ pieces, not simply elaborate improvisations. Indeed, his student William Mason claimed that the scores of both the Sonata and Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude lying on Liszt’s piano were soon falling apart, so often had they been pressed into service. But the scores were, for Liszt, more than just performing material—they were evidence of his new success as a creative artist.

Although most of Liszt’s best-known music was either written or revised during his Weimar years, much of it had a very long gestation indeed, with some sketches and early versions dating back a decade or more. In 1834 Liszt had produced a strikingly avant-garde, if slightly disjointed piece entitled Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, a feverish, improvisatory musical response to Alphonse de Lamartine’s poetry collection of the same name. Some years later he began toying with the idea of producing a cycle of compositions inspired by the same source, a plan which finally came to fruition in 1853. This group (the title Harmonies poétiques et religeuses now applying to the collection of ten pieces) includes two of Liszt’s finest works, the epic Funérailles and the gloriously expansive Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (God’s blessing in the wilderness). Liszt subscribed the score of the latter with the first lines of the poem, which happily fit the opening melody, and give the key to the mood of the piece: ‘D’oů me vient, ô mon Dieu, cette paix qui m’inonde? / D’oů me vient cette foi dont mon cśur surabonde?’ (‘O my Lord, whence comes this peace that overwhelms me? Whence comes this faith with which my heart overflows?’).

The melody is one of the most affecting that Liszt ever composed. And its accompaniment is no less imaginative—a remarkably original figuration that wreaths the tune in a perfumed halo of mildly pentatonic musical incense. But Lamartine was not the sole inspiration for this wonderfully sensuous music. An earlier version of the main melody had once been intended for a piece entitled Marie: Počme—a tribute to Liszt’s first long-term partner, Marie d’Agoult. This is perhaps unlikely to have been known to the dedicatee of the final version—Marie’s replacement, the Princess Wittgenstein.

We search in vain for any such personal programme for the Piano Sonata in B minor. But this annoying omission on the part of the composer has been generously rectified by numerous critics, who have mostly seen in the piece another commentary on Goethe’s Faust—a pianistic double, therefore, of Liszt’s Faust Symphony. Other suggested interpretations include the autobiographical (the Sonata in some sense a ‘character sketch’ of the composer himself) and the eschatological (a musical version of Milton’s Paradise Lost). Liszt would have had no justification for complaining about these invented programmes, for he himself advanced similarly fantastic conjectures for Chopin’s music; but the fact remains that neither the composer, nor the pupils who studied the Sonata with him, ever mentioned a programme in connection with the piece, which was the culmination of many years of experimentation with sonata form, and an attempt to follow in the footsteps of Beethoven in this most prestigious of genres.

The Sonata in B minor unfolds in only one vast movement, but within this Liszt encapsulates elements of the more common three- or four-movement sonata form. The idea of fusing elements of several movements into one was partly inspired by Beethoven’s example in the last movement of his Ninth Symphony, but Schubert had also adopted a similar plan for his 1822 Wanderer-Fantasy, one of Liszt’s favourite concert pieces. Many piano fantasias, for example Beethoven’s Op 77 and Hummel’s Op 18, or even Kalkbrenner’s slightly dilapidated Effusio musica, are similarly composed of relatively short, contrasting sections in a variety of keys and tempos. Schubert, however, follows a more complex plan, using thematic transformation to link sections together in a scheme of exposition section, slow section (the tune from his song Der Wanderer), scherzo and finale (the last beginning with a fugal exposition). Liszt succeeded in the B minor Sonata in adapting Schubert’s approach to the balanced tonal structure of a sonata form.

The idea that an important piece could consist of one movement alone, rather than three or four, seemed to have particular appeal to Liszt. In a review written in 1837 of some of Schumann’s piano music, and discussing in particular the sonata Schumann had entitled ‘Concert sans orchestre’, Liszt mused over the history of concerto form. Previously a concerto had to have three movements, he claimed. On the other hand, Field in his Piano Concerto No 7 had replaced the second solo section of the first movement with an Adagio. Weber, Mendelssohn and even Herz had also proceeded along this path. Liszt believed that the future lay in the free treatment of traditional form. Or, as he later put it, good composition involved the construction of ‘forms, not formulae’.

Although there were several precedents for concertos and fantasias in one continuous movement, there were few for the piano sonata, apart from Moscheles’s Sonate mélancolique, Op 49, which otherwise unfolds in standard sonata form. The marriage of the fantasy, which was normally in one movement, with the traditional multi-movement sonata had again been foreshadowed by Beethoven in his two sonatas ‘quasi una fantasia’ Op 27. These sonatas were to be played without a break between movements. Op 27 No 1 is especially notable in this regard in that the movements themselves are not independent. (Op 27 No 2 is of course the famous ‘Moonlight’ Sonata.) Liszt performed both Op 27 sonatas frequently, the latter perhaps too frequently, and neatly inverted their subtitle for the final version of Aprčs une lecture du Dante, which he described as ‘fantasia quasi sonata’.

The exposition and recapitulation of Liszt’s Sonata can be considered as analogous to the first movement and finale of a four-movement sonata, while the slow section and fugal scherzo that take up most of the development supply the other two hypothetical movements. Although a fondness for fluid chromatic harmony is everywhere in evidence here, the basic key relationships are deliberately more conventional than are usual with Liszt—the second subject is in the traditional relative major, while the slow section is in the dominant. This conventional outline points up all the more starkly the originality of the off-key opening (first in the Phrygian mode, then in a ‘gypsy-scale’ G minor), which seems at first to be the beginning of a piece in C minor rather than B minor. Even the scherzo section gives the initial impression of being a recapitulation in the wrong key—a semitone too low—before the music is violently wrenched back into the tonic key for the ‘proper’ return of the opening material.

Following this, Liszt’s original ending for the Sonata consisted of brashly histrionic chords carousing loudly up and down the keyboard, but he soon had a better idea. His second thoughts were the wonderful coda that now stands in the score—an ethereal conclusion bringing the work full circle to its opening theme, at last played in the tonic key, followed by three mystic harmonies in the high treble. Here Liszt used his virtuoso’s insight into the capabilities of the piano not to dazzle, but to create music of the highest spiritual quality.

If the Sonata was Liszt’s attempt to address the legacy of Beethoven, then the Fantasie und Fuge über das Thema B-A-C-H was a homage to another great German master, Johann Sebastian Bach. The piece was, appropriately enough, originally written for organ, specifically for the consecration of the new instrument in Merseburg Cathedral in 1856. A revised version for piano—heard in the present recording—was made in 1870. Bach had himself sometimes used the letters of his name as a musical theme. ‘B’ signifies B flat in German notation, and ‘H’ represents B natural, resulting in the short chromatic figure B flat-A-C-B natural. This Liszt develops in a variety of guises, ranging from a plethora of complex chromatic sequences to the contemplative fugal section that begins the second half of the work. Towards the end, the theme rings out as a series of majestic fortissimo chords, which again might have brought the piece to a perhaps too obvious close had not Liszt then unexpectedly produced a new, quietly rapt chromatic harmonization of the theme—offering a glimpse of mystical revelation in the midst of celebratory splendour.

As a sparkling aperitif to the magisterial Sonata, we have a short set of three pieces that Liszt originally intended as a musical digestif. Venezia e Napoli was published in 1861 as a ‘supplement’ to the Italian volume of Liszt’s Années de pčlerinage, and offers varied treatments of tunes probably first heard by the composer during his travels around Italy with Marie d’Agoult in the late 1830s. The passage of time seems to have imparted a warm nostalgic glow to this journey, most evident in the magical coda added to Gondoliera, a gently undulating piece based on the song ‘La biondina in gondoletta’ by Giovanni Battista Peruchini. The ensuing Canzone is a darkly passionate arrangement of a similar song, this time from Rossini’s opera Otello, which features an obsessively pessimistic gondolier—a character for whom we look in vain in Shakespeare’s original text—who has the habit of regaling his captive audiences with Dante’s ‘Nessůn maggior dolore’ (‘There is no greater sorrow’). Fortunately the sparklingly high spirits of Liszt’s concluding bravura Tarantella, based on some lively themes by Guillaume-Louis Cottrau, peremptorily banish the glum gondolier back to his murky lagoon.

Kenneth Hamilton © 2011

   English   Français   Deutsch