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One of the first female students of the iconic Russian pianist Lazar Berman, internationally renowned soloist Lucille Chung performs a programme of virtuosic and beguiling works by Franz Liszt.
Because of his overwhelming gifts as a performer, one rarely thinks of Liszt the composer irrespective of Liszt the pianist. As biographer Alan Walker contends: 'Liszt composed with the outlook of a performer, and performed with the insight of a composer.' Yet his compositional output must be considered on its own merits as well. Aside from his contributions to the piano literature, Liszt developed the symphonic poem, an orchestral form that would become one of the late Romantic period’s quintessential genres. His reimagination of the symphonic form is most powerfully manifest in his greatest orchestral work, Eine Faust-Symphonie in drei Charakterbilden (1857) (A Faust Symphony in three character pictures), after Goethe. Though programmatic, the Faust Symphony does not narrate Goethe’s Faust per se, but provides sketches of Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. (Liszt’s arrangement of the Symphony’s 'Gretchen' movement appears on this disc.)
But of course, in considering Liszt the composer, his piano music is key. The piano provided the laboratory for Liszt’s innovations. And beyond merely representing one of the richest and most daunting contributions to the instrument’s repertoire, his extensive catalogue of piano music demonstrates radical new methods of thematic development and bold experiments with harmony and form—innovations that made Liszt the most influential composer of the New German School, the progressive vanguard of Western music in the latter half of the nineteenth century that included Wagner and Berlioz.
Liszt’s representative early works for the piano include his Grandes études de Paganini and the Études d’exécution transcendante. The technical challenges contained in these scores, composed between 1838 and 1840 and dedicated to Clara Schumann, reveal the breathtaking extent of Liszt’s virtuosity. Moreover, they represent the first of the pianist Liszt’s path-breaking technical advances (developments contemporaneous with the evolution of the piano itself into a larger instrument, capable of greater dynamic and textural possibilities). Liszt returned to the Paganini and 'Transcendental' Études in 1851, ironing out some of their thorniest difficulties (though they remain extremely challenging) and revising voicings and textures to achieve a clearer, more brilliant sound. The following year, he would begin writing the centerpiece of his piano oeuvre.
Liszt dedicated his Sonata in B minor, S178 (1852–53) to Robert Schumann—a reciprocal gesture following Schumann’s dedication to Liszt of his Phantasie, Op 17. Liszt sent the manuscript to the Schumanns’ home, but it arrived only after Robert had entered the asylum in Endenich where we would live out his final years. Clara was indifferent to the Sonata and never performed it. She was not alone in her indifference; following the work’s premiere, given by Hans von Bülow in January 1857, Berlin’s Nationalzeitung derided it as 'an invitation to hissing and stamping'. Eduard Hanslick declared: 'Anyone who has heard it and finds it beautiful is beyond help.'
Certainly, the B minor Sonata’s form is unorthodox, and its expressive character takes no prisoners. Historical perspective, however, has remedied its initial reception; today, the Sonata is widely regarded as a highly original work, and one of Liszt’s greatest accomplishments.
It is a work of startling formal ingenuity. Across its four continuous movements, Liszt superimposes a macrocosmic sonata form, so that the first movement serves as the exposition; the second movement, the development; the third movement, the transition to the recapitulation; and the finale, a triumphant recapitulation and introspective coda. But in addition to combining sonata structures (as well as, nota bene, a fugato third movement), the Sonata furthermore demonstrates the expressive gravity of Liszt’s symphonic poems and foreshadows the leitmotivic dramatic thrust of Wagner’s operas.
The Sonata continues to be the most intensely scrutinized of Liszt’s compositions, as much for the intrigue surrounding a supposed program as for its sheer expressive magnitude. Though Liszt never explicitly offered a program, the Sonata’s narrative quality is too strong to dismiss, especially considering Liszt’s general aesthetic predispositions. 'New wine demands new bottles', he famously proclaimed, regarding the traditional forms as the purview of history (and Brahms as lamentably old-fashioned). From the composer of Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi sonata and St François d’Assise: le prédication aux oiseaux, the pedestrian ‘Sonata in B minor’ seems out of character. Peter Raabe, the German conductor who assembled the first complete chronology of Liszt’s music, theorized that the B minor constituted a Faust Sonata, with themes, à la Eine Faust-Symphonie, depicting Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. Others have suggested that the Sonata illustrates the fall of man; still others speculate that the Sonata is autobiographical.
The Sonata’s first page presents the cellular material on which much of the Sonata’s structure is based. The descending scale played piano, sotto voce in the work’s opening measures signals important junctures as the Sonata progresses, as if lowering and raising the curtain between acts.
The first subject combines two consequential motifs: the first, an assertive dotted-rhythm gesture followed by a descending triplet; then, in the bass, a marcato gesture built on repeated notes.
In signature fashion, Liszt metamorphoses these motifs over the course of the Sonata. The movement’s second subject begins with a sweeping Grandioso, derived from the repeated notes at the Sonata’s opening.
This soon blooms into a beguiling passage, marked cantando espressivo—likewise the repeated-note cell transfigured.
The Andante sostenuto recalls the profound slow movements of late Beethoven, whom Liszt revered. The key, F sharp major, held programmatic significance for Liszt: according to Walker, it is Liszt’s 'beatific' key, shared by the 'Paradiso' section of the Dante Sonata, the Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, and Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este—all works with spiritual overtones. The repeated-note motif resurfaces, now dolcissimo con intimo sentimento. The inclusion of a fugato third movement likewise evokes late Beethoven. Taking the assertive Allegro energico motif as its subject, this fugue of finger-twisting chromaticism serves to return the Sonata to the large-scale recapitulation of the finale.
The piano music of Liszt’s last years exchanges the breadth of the Sonata in B minor for pithy, densely compressed miniatures. 'This is the language of outcries and asides, of whispers and laments', writes Alan Walker. 'It stands in opposition to the exuberant, life-enhancing compositions of his younger years.' The harmonic sensibility becomes increasingly untethered, as in the cheeky Bagatelle sans tonalité, S216a (1885). The chromaticism and tonal liberty of these pieces looks ahead to the twentieth-century dissolution of traditional tonality at the hands of Schoenberg, Debussy, et al. Witness the restless nocturne Schlaflos, Frage und Antwort, S203 (1883), after a poem (no longer extant) by Liszt’s student Antonia Raab; or Unstern! Sinistre, Disastro, S208 (1881), whose opening, ominous tritones, uttered in stark octaves, escalate to crashing fortississimo dissonances at the work’s climax—as if 'a prisoner were hammering on the walls of his cell', writes Raabe, 'well knowing that no one would hear him'.
Liszt correctly foresaw that such dissonances as he indulged in would come to pervade modern music, and that twelve-note chords would become fundamental to Western harmony. 'In fact,' he predicted, well ahead of his time, 'it will soon be necessary to complete the system by the admission of quarter-and eighth-[tones] until something better turns up!'
For its subtle austerity, Trübe Wolken (Nuages gris), S199 (1881) represents perhaps the most remarkable of Liszt’s late piano miniatures—'a gateway to modern music', writes Walker, and, according to theorist Allen Forte, 'a high point in the experimental idiom with respect to expressive compositional procedure'. Its sinister opening utterance, blighted in its first measure by a jarring tritone, barely sketches the home key of G minor; quietly terrifying tremolandi rumble beneath a series of augmented triads, anticipating the Impressionist touch of Debussy.
So do some of Liszt’s last creations contain an understated poignancy, melancholy, and nostalgia—from the gentle Wiegenlied (Chant du berceau), S198 (1881) to the devastatingly apathetic whisper of Resignazione (Ergebung), S187a/i (1877–81), whose haunting final measures seem to simply give up.
If not the portrait of the artist as a young Romantic, perhaps history’s lasting image is of Liszt in old age, weathered and disheveled, as in the famous photograph taken by Nadar four months before the composer’s death in July 1886. His once lustrous mane is now stringy and lusterless, his face pockmarked, and his gaze quiet. The bouts of depression that he suffered late in his life are recorded in the lines on his brow. 'I carry a deep sadness of the heart', Liszt confided to a friend, 'which must now and then break out in sound.' Such sadness is given voice in these final works, whether in their autumnal pathos or their eldritch harmonic schemes.
Patrick Castillo © 2018
Most of Liszt’ music has universal appeal. One can find copious connections to the past as well as a new individual voice developed from his reportedly stunning pianistic skills, but inspired by a wide range of attributes: pagan folk to deeply religious music. Later in life, he somehow deconstructed his music, as in an act of de-composition, looking deeply inwards into his own intricate, perhaps troubled, mind. He wrote miniatures with titles as puzzling as their form, harmonic structure and lack of motivic material. He was able to produce music that at once revered the past, basked in the glow of the present, and paved a long road, which would clearly lead us to the Second Viennese school.
My relationship with Liszt started with the composer’s obvious piano-centric and romantic repertoire. It then deepened immensely as a challenge. I was one of Lazar Berman’s first female students. Berman was regarded as his generation’s ultimate Liszt interpreter and was quick to judge that a diminutive lady with hands spanning a 9th (although I can now stretch a 10th on a good day) would ever succeed in playing Liszt well. By the time I made my debut in Budapest at the Great Hall of the Liszt Academy, performing Liszt’s First Piano Concerto, I had won awards for my performances of the B minor Sonata and graduated from the Hochschule Franz Liszt in Weimar. Mr Berman came around.
The B minor Sonata, which is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of the repertoire has been a close companion for most of my musical life, but it was not until I was exposed to the late works on this album that I started to understand Liszt’s music on a deeper level. I like to think that his late works are deconstructed in a way that perhaps reveal his innermost secrets. At last, he is giving us a glimpse of his fears and despair and is searching for new musical tools to express them. He is taking everything that had made him popular and throwing it away. Gone are the sweeping romantic gestures and melodies, the rich chords, the pianistic razzle-dazzle. This is music that cherishes economy of means, silences and uneasiness. In this process, I discovered that the older Liszt was always present in the earlier works, if perhaps buried in his subconscious. It is what makes Liszt’s music special and timeless.
The unique program on this album, centered around the B minor Sonata, and including the ravishingly beautiful 'Gretchen' transcription from the Faust Symphony, as well as a selection of the late works, is my homage to Liszt, and an attempt to draw a full circle around his fascinating world and psyche.
Lucille Chung © 2018