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It is also curious that Franz Liszt had
many parallels to Leonardo DaVinci. The old Italian master was of the
highest order in the arena of invention and so too was Liszt. DaVinci
experimented in science and the arts procuring new techniques and
visions never seen before by man while Liszt too created soundscapes so
unique and bewildering to his contemporaries that even the great Hans
Von Bulow could not fathom how to conduct a work like Hamlet.
Granted both did experience the pitfalls associated with experimentation, as can be witnessed by the deterioration of DaVinci's Last Supper or the stylistic fluctuations in Liszt's Christus Oratorio. Yet, both pieces are masterworks of the highest order as they both broke ground in countless ways and move us with their profound vision. As for their seemingly precarious methodology it's key to remember, only by abandoning the norms and plodding into the deep, dark abyss of the unknown can one engender and reveal the nebulous wonders that lay hidden to lesser beings.
Franz Liszt has always been assured a lofty place in the Pantheon of Composers, yet on that celestial horizon of stars only a select few burn with fervid intensity... Liszt is one of them.
Born on October 22, 1811 in Raiding (then Doborján) Hungary Franz Liszt was at the age of six recognized as a child prodigy. His father Adam, who played the cello in the local orchestra, taught Franz piano. Employed as a secretary by Prince Nicholas Esterházy Adam asked for extended leave to further his son's musical education.
Adding further to Adam's plea was a letter of request in 1822 by Antonio Salieri, who was astonished upon hearing the young Liszt play at a private house and wished to freely train the child in composition. The Prince finally gave the Liszt's leave to stay in Vienna. Liszt at this time also studied piano under Carl Czerny - Beethoven's esteemed pupil. This lasted only eighteen months.
Tours and many performances generated amazement and praise for the young Liszt by audiences, musicians and Kings. They were especially impressed by his uncanny ability to improvise an original composition from a melody suggested by the audience. Playing on par with established professionals at age 12 Liszt was fast becoming a sensation.
Eventually traveling to Paris seeking admittance to the Paris Conservatory the young Liszt was denied by Luigi Cherubini due to his being a foreigner, even though Cherubini himself was Italian. Adam then resorted to Ferdinando Paer to teach Franz composition in 1824. It was during this time that Liszt wrote his first and only opera Don Sanche, later performed in 1825.
More tours and acclaim followed as Moscheles wrote, "In its power and mastery of every difficulty Liszt's playing surpasses anything previously heard." In 1826 Liszt's father Adam died leaving the 15 year old boy to care for his mother. Depression and disillusion took hold as he earned a living by teaching piano lessons in Paris. Liszt began to lose interest in music and questioned his profession.
Becoming an avid reader Liszt immersed himself in literature and religion, which was to have a profound influence on his life and work. With the Revolution of 1830 as if awakened by cannon fire Liszt engaged his art and life once again. This is the period when Liszt's friend Delacroix paints Liberty leading the people and he hears Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.
By 1832 Liszt is further inspired by hearing Paganini and meeting Chopin. In 1833 he meets Comtesse Marie d'Agoult as they eventually elope in 1835 and journey to Switzerland. Here Liszt composes several impressions of the Swiss country in Album d'un Voyageur which would later surface as the Années de Pèlerinage. Première Année: Suisse. Upon hearing of Thalberg's success in Paris Liszt returns for his famous piano duel, to ensure his title as King of the piano.
With the devising of the piano recital Liszt begins his world famous tours conquering Europe by storm. In Portugal he is described as, "God of the piano." Along the way Liszt performs charity concerts for various causes. By 1844 Lisztomania is in full bloom, while Liszt's stormy relationship finally ends with Marie d'Agoult after fathering 3 children and repeated attempts to suppress her manic depressive condition. In 1847 Liszt meets Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein in Kiev and to the World's shock retires from the concert stage.
By 1848 Liszt settles in Weimar, living in the Altenberg as Court Kapellmeister. Later Carolyne joins him. That Liszt could have made more money performing reveals Liszt's burning desire to concentrate on a higher mission - the creation of new musical forms via a fertile and liberated mind. This he achieves in his symphonic poems and unique piano scores. Taking on pupils without fee Liszt cultivates a new breed of pianists nicknamed the Altenberg Eagles.
In 1858 Liszt resigns from being Kapellmeister based upon attacks from the conservatives against his and his pupils works. By 1860 Joachim and Brahms publish their Manifesto against Liszt and the modern composers in an unsuccessful effort to thwart new forms. But the old classic traditions would eventually fade to the progress forged by Liszt and the Romantics as the Century unfolded.
In 1860 Liszt and Carolyne attempt to wed in Rome but on the eve of their marriage the plans are thwarted due to her unsubmitted divorce papers. They remain separate but soul mates for life. In 1865 Liszt decides to enter the Vatican and receives the tonsure and minor orders. Liszt later sets up residence in three cities, Rome, Weimar and Budapest. Establishing the Conservatory of Music in Budapest he is elected its first president. Amidst the bewildered conservatives who dismissed most of his output as radical and unmusical Liszt scores success with several pieces, his St.Elizabeth Oratorio among others.
Liszt's later years are marked with a new reflective nature with greater simplicity of form yet more extreme in harmony. Criticism of these misunderstood pieces would prompt Liszt to instruct his students not to perform his works in public, as not to hinder their budding careers. While some obeyed others continued the cause of their great master.
Upon Liszt's visit to Bayreuth to attend a Wagner fest hosted by Cosima, his daughter and widow of Wagner, he fell gravely ill with pneumonia. Surrounded by his adoring pupils Friedheim, Siloti, Stavenhagen and others, who were eventually refused admittance to his room by Cosima, the grand master died at 11:30 PM on July 31, 1886. At the organ playing solemnly at his funeral was Anton Bruckner. Through the succeeding years Liszt's genius as a composer would gradually surface shedding light on many previously unheard masterworks. That Strauss, Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Sibelius and countless others would reap the benefits of studying his innovative work would be evident in time and indelibly mark Liszt's profound impact on music history.
A Faust Symphony (James Conlon- conductor/ Erato or Sinopoli - conductor/ DG)
A pinnacle for Liszt and the Romantic Era this work is truly magnificent. Goethe's timeless classic receives it's greatest expression in symphonic form. A must have! True, some other performances have some brief moments of greater expression but as a whole Conlon's performance works exceptionally well. Sinopoli's more recent recording is loaded with vitality as well. For a first symphony Liszt produced a timeless classic of total perfection. Beware, there are those who would sell their soul for this work.
Dante Symphony (James Conlon- cond./ Erato or try Varujian Kojian-cond./ Citadel)
To translate Dante's complex work into symphonic form was a tremendous task yet I could think of no other composer in history capable enough to rival Liszt's comprehension and execution of this subject. The result was amazingly successful albeit those who feel substituting the Paradisio with a magnificat leaves the symphony unbalanced. Under Wagner's advice, that no human could write music depicting Paradise, Liszt composed a magnificat that's so spiritually moving and convincing as a glimpse of what Paradise is - no human could ask for more. This work is harmonically innovative and emotionally enthralling. Needless to say, Liszt's depiction of Hell is down right nasty. It's a symphonic spectacular of demonic and angelic beauty. It was a favorite of Rachmaninoff, and I can certainly see why. Both CDs are superb offerings with interesting interpretations.
Symphonic Poems Volumes 1 &2; (each vol. is 2 CDs) (Kurt Masur conductor/ EMI & Musical Heritage Society)
These 4 CDs comprise all 13 of Liszt's Symphonic Poems along with several other orchestral works, each a gem in their own right. Although Die Ideal is perhaps too long and episodic and Festklange a bit repetitive Liszt always offers something fresh and interesting. Although there are better recordings of certain individual pieces, Orpheus and Prometheus for example, this collection as a whole is the best at present. Masur effectively captures the brutality and futility of war in Heroide Funebre, while his near perfect rendition of Hamlet's varied moods from internal brooding to outward rage effectively captures Liszt's psychological portrait. Too bad this neglected masterpiece doesn't appear in concert halls. Other gems abound in this splendid collection albeit some rough handling by Masur on certain pieces.
Les Préludes, Prometheus, Mephisto Waltz & Tasso (Sir Georg Solti-conductor/ London)
Prometheus and the Mephisto Waltz receive outstanding interpretations in this powerful recording. Prometheus being the best available. The other two pieces although less impressive under Solti's baton still make this a good buy.
Les Préludes, Legends, etc. (James Conlon-conductor/ Erato)
Two episodes of Lenau's Faust the Nocturnal Procession and the Mephisto Waltz (the latter recorded here with a rarely heard and superior alternative ending by Liszt) are two well recorded renditions by Conlon. The Nocturnal Procession is a beautiful piece that is sadly neglected in the concert hall. The other pieces rounding out this CD are also impressive interpretations.
Piano Concertos 1&2;, Hungarian Fantasy (James Conlon- conductor,Francois-Rene Duchable- piano/ Erato)
The popular Concerto #1 and it's awesome sibling are given a fantastic performance here as both soloist and orchestra play so tightly woven that jagged edges seldom appear. The second concerto opens with a most beautiful and dreamy rendition, which dramatically builds to their unrivalled Allegro agitato assai section. As it should be. Bravo James & Francois;-Rene'!
Totentanz, Piano Concertos 1&2; (Seiji Ozawa- conductor, Krystian Zimerman- piano/ Deutsche Grammophon)
The Totentanz or "Death Dance" is played with feverish gusto by both soloist and orchestra. It's a spine tingling performance with intense interpretations by Zimerman. Ozawa plays with clarity especially in the chamber like sections but unfortunately lacked power in places such as the opening where the piano dominates. The two concertos are mediocre perfomances.
Liebestraume & other song transcriptions Vol.19 (Leslie Howard- piano/ Hyperion)
Leslie Howards immense undertaking to record Liszt's entire catalog of piano works is quite admirable and historically necessary. This volume offers the famous Liebestraume (Bolet & others are better) but more importantly it contains 15 other masterworks each beautifully rendered. A great selection and a fine recording.
Etudes D'Execution Transcendante (Vladimir Ovchinikov- piano/ EMI)
Liszt's "Transcendental Studies" are so perfectly worked together as a whole, contrary to Chopin's, that one seems to travel through a broad spectrum of worldly events which inevitably transports the listener into the transcending realm of Liszt's vivid imagination. A brilliant opus by Liszt and a great performance by Ovchinikov. Also check out Jorge Bolet's version on the Ensayo label.
Fantasy, Variations,etc. Vol.3 (Leslie Howard- piano/ Hyperion)
The "Fantasy and Fugue BACH/ Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen,Zagen/ Trios Odes Funebres " are all powerfully moving works each performed with insight and full-blooded passion by Leslie, who has unjustly been attacked by some as a weak interpreter of Liszt. Granted, his huge Liszt project is not without weak performances, but one must remember... it is impossible to play all 1000 plus works of Liszt each to perfection, unless one IS Franz Liszt! His project is of immense importance as he has revealed ALL of Liszt to the world. Hopefully these recordings will inspire others to concentrate on specific works to polish and reveal the inherent beauties in Liszt's lesser know or sadly neglected gems. Yet, this disc shows Leslie as the great Lisztian performer he can be with certain works. An outstanding disc!
The Late Pieces Vol.11 (Leslie Howard- piano/ Hyperion)
These rare and compelling pieces are from Liszt's twilight years of prophetic genius. With thirty intriguing works rounding out this stellar collection this CD is invaluable. When they say, "Liszt hurled his lance into the future," it's many of these works they refer to. Many great performances by Leslie with only a few weak moments.
Piano Music Vol.3 (Philip Thomson- piano/ Naxos)
The complete piano works of Liszt by various performers is Naxos' strategy. Here, the first six pieces of Harmonies Poetic and Religious are coupled with 3 other works. The emotionally charged "Blessing of God in Solitude" and the profoundly powerful "Pensee des Morts" are two masterpieces, played extremely well. These pieces offer two polar views of life- 1) the emotional splendors evoked by the beauties of the world and life which God has bestowed upon us and 2) the torturous thoughts of death that carry us into nebulous realms of the afterlife - that afflict, and sometimes console us all.
Piano Music Vol.4 (Philip Thomson- piano/ Naxos)
Here, the last four pieces of Harmonies Poetic and Religious along with the Six Consolations and other works round out a staisfactory disc that is priced to fit anyone's budget. The Consolations are only standard performances, but the famous Funérailles starts the disc very strongly while the Miserere, d'aprés Palestrina and the Cantique d'amour will certainly attract attention to these lesser-known gems.
Orchestral Songs (Andras Korodi- conductor, various singers/ Hungaroton)
A collection of 7 songs well sung and nicely orchestrated make this CD a listening pleasure, especially the beautiful Die Loreley.
Saint Elisabeth Oratorio (Arpad Joo- conductor, Eva Marton- soprano/ Hungaroton)
This oratorio was quite revolutionary in that Liszt's construction resembles a large scale vocal symphony galvanized by recurring themes. Performed with much success in Liszt's lifetime this recording brings to life this immense work - imbued with great music, singing and choruses.
Christus Oratorio (Antal Dorati- conductor, Sandor Solyom-Nagy- baritone/ Hungaroton)
As mentioned in my commentary this epic work broke the "rules" of oratorio which some might find unsettling, yet like DaVinci's Last Supper this deeply spiritual and epic work probes deep into the soul and emerges as a sublime masterpiece. Rather than formulating a questionable text Liszt drew upon the Bible and liturgy to produce an undisputed, spiritual document glorifying Christ. Although there is no plot Liszt's strategic arrangements form an emotional curve that subconsciously evokes the message of purification through suffering.
It begins with Christmas. The March of the three Magi is miraculous as it gently marches the listener up to when they first spot baby Jesus - as the most sublime-melody gracefully caresses and lifts the soul evoking the divine majesty of Christ. It then leads to The Miracle where Christ calms the storm, a magnificent passage filled with drama and profound religious meditations. We eventually reach Tristis est anima mea which is one of the most doleful passages ever written, perhaps Puccini knew of this piece before perfecting his own, as Christ somberly speaks to the Holy Father before his crucifixion. Happily the oratorio ends with Christ's ressurection and a glorious Alleluja! For those deeply religious this oratorio is a must, while those harboring doubt might very well be converted.
My apologies, Liszt was so prolific that it's impossible to mention all the great works or recordings that need mentioning. As we know the "liszt" is endless.
Published by the National Library of Poetry / Best Poems of 1996
DiSilvio / DIGITAL VISTA
inc. ©1996 - 2001