Tuesday, November 5, 2013

"Music simply poured out of him": the legacy of Liszt

"Were one looking for a yardstick by which to identify someone’s musical tastes, few composers fulfil the function better than Franz Liszt." So writes music critic Jeremy Nicholas in a worthy Gramophone article on the Hungarian-born composer/pianist whose music encompasses "the whole of the Romantic movement and the yet unformulated worlds of Impressionism, atonality and dissonance."
"Were one looking for a yardstick by which to identify someone’s musical tastes, few composers fulfill the function better than Franz Liszt. You either get him or you don't. His music is to love or to loathe. A few years ago, while compiling a list of the 50 greatest composers for a book, my erudite and music-loving publisher balked at the inclusion of Liszt. 'Liszt?' he moaned. 'What about Tallis and Victoria and Schütz? Far more important!' He did have the grace to admit that he didn’t know much about Liszt the man, and that he had not heard a great deal of his music. His perception was based on a handful of what he characterised as 'flashy' works – and they had not appealed to his refined sensibilities. My publisher’s allergy, I have found, is not uncommon.
On the other side of the fence, those of us who worship at the shrine look on non-believers with the same degree of pity that a doctor reserves for a geriatric with incurable arthritis: we’d like to help but there’s nothing we can do. Ignorance and preconceptions are frequent symptoms of Lisztophobia. My publisher’s affliction was cured, in part, by sending him some representative CDs of some of the best Liszt from all genres in top-class performances. He claimed to be, as a result, if not a convert then at least surprised by the variety and quality of the music, and at how much he had enjoyed these discoveries."
"He was the most photographed man of the 19th century and the most sculpted man after Napoleon. He had a social way with him that won the hearts of those who knew him personally. None of those who spoke ill of him ever did so to his face because his personality was very powerful. There was no door of any court or state in Europe that Liszt couldn’t walk through."—Leslie Howard, president of the Liszt Society
Czech pianist Libor Novacek, who is quoted in the article, describes Liszt as "a very inspired and sensitive man who embedded in his music his own personal conflict between earthly passion and godly virtue. This is why we find such different styles and qualities in his writing, from the flashy Hungarian Rhapsodies and Paganini transcriptions to the epic works such as the Sonata in B minor. My little quest as a musician is to persuade the audience to always look beyond the surface of his music and show them the beauty and poetry that his works possess."

"One of the reasons why Liszt is not held in the highest esteem is that he’s very often played by musicians who shouldn’t be held in the highest esteem. They play Liszt as though it’s some kind of cheap trick – and when you play it like a cheap trick, it sounds like a cheap trick. You can make Liszt sound like muck – and I don’t think that’s his fault. If you played a Beethoven sonata with the same carelessness with which most people approach Liszt, you’d get run out of town on a rail."—Leslie Howard
We currently have quite a few CDs featuring varied piano music by Liszt that more than meet the criteria held up by Mr Howard. From Earl Wild's excellent Ivory Classics label are a  two-disc release by Wild himself (with "Un Sospiro," the "Mephisto Polka," the transcription of Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor, the Sonata in B Minor, and more), as well as collections by Ruth Slenczynska, Kevin Fitz-Gerald, and Dame Moura Lympany. From other labels, we have Martha Argerich and Glenn Gould performing Concerto No. 1 and his redactions of two Beethoven symphonies for piano. All at bargain prices!


  1. When, a donkey's life ago, I heard the Liebestraum, I thought I had never heard anything so hokey. But Liszt evolved, and as I listened to him more, I realized he began as a virtuoso playing pieces that showed his abilities (the flash). Then his pieces took on a deeper meaning. His renditions of the poems of Tasso and Petrarch won me over. His later pieces, the Transcendental Etudes and Nuage Gris, were the polar opposites of that hoary Romanticism, clair et sec.

  2. I just read an article about "Lisztomania." Apparently during some of Liszt concerts some phenomenon of hysteria brought on seeing and hearing Liszt perform. An old school fan frenzy, take that "Beliebers"!!! Liszt was sorta dreamy in his younger years.

    1. Oh yeah, the crowds loved Liszt as they loved Paganini. And with reason--erudite and sophisticated, he could play Chopin better than Chopin (so Chopin said), and charmed many a lady, till he became Abbe Liszt. A plaster cast of his hands--perfect pianist's hands--survives him.

    2. Years ago I reviewed a Ken Russell film actually titled Lisztomania. A not-very-good film, starring Roger Daltrey of The Who in the title role – the trailer will give you the idea, in less than three minutes, of just how bad it was.

    3. OMG! Your review must've been better than that film. Why, oh why was it named Lisztomania?

    4. I always assumed the movie title was an allusion to "Beatlemania." As Tastes/Penny no doubt found out, though, the term apparently goes back to the 1840s.

    5. Oh, I heard of it being from that time. I just can't get over the tone-deaf chutzpah of whoever applied Liszt's name to that trashy flick!