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.
from notes by Tim Parry © 2000