Piano Sonata in B minor S178 [33'37]
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|Nikolai Demidenko (piano)|
|Leslie Howard (piano)|
|Simon Barere (piano)|
|Vladimir Horowitz (piano)|
|Stephen Hough (piano)|
|Marc-André Hamelin (piano)|
Writers on Liszt are unanimous in their verdict upon the Sonata in B minor: it is Liszt’s greatest piano work, if not indeed his finest composition. It is also one of the few important Liszt works to be ostensibly free of any kind of programme or external reference, although, as Alfred Brendel and others have contended, a case can be made out for relating the structure and content of the piece to Goethe’s Faust. (If, as seems more likely, the piece is autobiographical or self-revelatory, the connection with Faust may still be drawn.) And Brendel is surely right to reject the notion, based on the use of the so-called ‘Cross-motif’ – three notes rising by a tone and a minor third, the first three notes of the plainsong Vexilla regis prodeunt – in the Grandioso second subject, that there is a religious dimension to the work. For a general analysis of the piece of not too technical a nature, Brendel’s essay in Music Sounded Out is strongly commended. Here, a few brief observations must suffice.
Without entering into the many different interpretations by critical commentators upon the broad structure of the work, we may content ourselves that the piece is in a single, unbroken movement, containing a slow central section and a scherzo-like fugato which, viewing the work as a large first-movement form, more or less play the part of the Classical development section as well as give the impression of several movements in one. Liszt was, of course, influenced by Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy in the shape of the piece, but strove to create more of a single dramatic design. He had, by this time, already written two large-scale piano works in which he attempted to fuse elements of two movements into one: the Grosses Konzertsolo and the Scherzo and March, but, excellent as those attempts are, it is only in the Sonata where the aim is triumphantly achieved. Liszt worked very long and carefully at this project, and we may be thankful that he never risked invidious comparison by ever composing a second piano work of these dimensions. The Sonata remains the most important and original contribution to the form since Beethoven and Schubert.
Like the Faust Symphony and many other larger Liszt works, the tonality of the piece is withheld at the beginning, and the first theme, Lento assai, rhythmically ambiguous octaves separated by silence and followed by a descending scale, is in a kind of G minor. B minor is immediately established at the tempo change to Allegro energico in the eighth bar. Two further themes are introduced in quick succesion – a theme in octaves characterized by the downward interval of the diminished seventh, and a rhythmic motif in the bass easily identified by its repeated notes. Themes two and three inform the ensuing pages until the opening theme returns to herald the fourth theme, Grandioso, which takes the music to D major and, in Classical terms, the second subject, which continues by thematic transformation of the earlier material in the new key. Especially beautiful is the delicate melody derived from the third theme, its repeated notes no longer menacing. Frenetic development leads to a passage (from bar 255) which corresponds to the Classical codetta and (at bar 277) the development which opens with a transformation of the very opening of the work. An almost operatic dialogue leads to the Andante sostenuto in F sharp major with its new, fifth theme, which alternates with the fourth to create the most passionate of slow movements. A return to the opening material introduces the fugato in the principal fast tempo, full of wit and spiky dissonance, before the recapitulation (from bar 531) which builds to a great climax (from the Più mosso at bar 555) before the second subject matter returns in B major. (It is interesting to note that this melody is much more restrained than it was in its D major appearance, and that, despite the wilful tinkering by many a pianist, Liszt does not specify the addition of the bottom octave B here, or indeed anywhere else in the whole Sonata until the very last note. Of all Liszt’s music, this is surely the piece which requires the most absolute fidelity to the text.)
The Stretta Presto and Prestissimo of the treacherous octaves in the coda do not lead to a grand conclusion (although the manuscript shows that Liszt briefly entertained the idea) but to a masterly bringing to rest of all the material, including the theme of the slow movement in a mood of quiet optimism achieved by the most oblique final cadence, from the F major triad to the gently reiterated chord of B major, in its aspiring second inversion until the last note finally releases all tension.
As is very well known, Liszt dedicated his Sonata to Schumann in a reciprocal gesture for receiving the dedication of Schumann’s great Fantasy, Op 17 – a dedication which Clara Schumann spitefully expunged in her edition of her late husband’s works!
from notes by Leslie Howard © 1991
Other albums featuring this work
Vladimir Horowitz – The complete solo European recordings
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