The version for piano and orchestra of Totentanz
has often been described as the best of Liszt’s works for that medium, and it is surprising that the piano solo version, which is extremely well done (it is slightly shorter at the very end), is so rarely encountered. In the passages where the orchestra was silent, Liszt took over the solo part without alteration, but for the other sections he contrived some rather ingenious solutions and alternatives. There are also one or two notes that will sound ‘wrong’ to the unsuspecting – Liszt changed some of the harmonies and, in one striking place (at the first appearance of the subsidiary theme from bar 466), the melody from the orchestral version. The piece is based on the medieval plainsong Dies irae
in five large variations with many smaller ones incorporated, and is one of many examples of the Mephistophelean side of Liszt’s musical character, as well as a testing study in the art of making extreme technical demands serve solid musical purposes.
from notes by Leslie Howard © 1991