Of Liszt & Other Ghosts

In which the writer spends half the post damning Liszt, and the other half praising Beethoven; among other things.

     I spent a fair amount of energy over the last two concert seasons avoiding Liszt. 2011 was the bicentennial of the composer’s birth, so a lot of pianists took it upon themselves to load up their programs with Liszt. I wasn’t aware of the bicentennial until, walking by the Provincetown Playhouse one day last fall, my eye happened to catch on the all-Liszt program posted by the door. I remembered the Chopin and Schumann bicentennials of the year before, and a light bulb turned on over my head. Franz Liszt. Born 1811.

I was doomed.

Well, not really. Of the dozen or so piano recitals I caught over the last concert season, only a quarter featured Liszt … although this does not include concerts I avoided because they were predominantly or exclusively Liszt.

While it’s true that I’ve never cared for Liszt’s music, the bicentennial seems to have sedimented my feelings, making of Liszt an acquired distaste, and of me an inverted Lisztomaniac. Insipid melodies embellished to the hilt, as though through embellishment they would eventually come to say something. That old saw about Henry James—“he chews more than he can bite off”—actually applies better to Liszt. Hell, I can listen to James chew for hours. Nobody chews better than James. But there has to be something to chew—some inch, as James put it, from which to take that ell. And then the ell itself has to get us somewhere. In Liszt, the embellishment never seems to move the music in interesting directions. It is so much ornament around an empty center: a queen’s ruff on a playing card, a coiffed retinue genuflecting before an idiot king. A shimmering waste; music for magpies’ nests. The pianist Marguerite Long once compared the “fire of [Liszt’s] heart and genius illuminat[ing] the foam of his cascades” in Les Jeaux d’eau de la Villa d’Este to Debussy’s “prodigious love of nature” that “plunged him into that life-giving element, water,” in Reflets dans l’eau. Put differently, Liszt’s water is that of a decorative fountain: pretty, occasionally mesmerizing, but ultimately stagnant. Debussy’s are natural springs. I’d rather swim than watch.

I know it’s sort of un-hip today to bash Liszt. We seem to be in a fawning-and-gushing phase, aggravated by the bicentennial, and spearheaded by pianists who like to play Liszt’s music. (I can understand why, and maybe it’s for the very same reasons I don’t enjoy listening. Monty Python, revised: If you’ve enjoyed listening to this piece by Liszt just half as much as I’ve enjoyed playing it, then I’ve enjoyed it twice as much as you have.) It may be trite to call Liszt out for shallow virtuosity. But then every other approach seems just as stale. First, critics point to twilight and/or lesser-known works in which the “real” composer is supposed to reside (e.g., “Yes, I know that’s awful; but have you heard the ‘Funérailles’?”). Next, these become a justification for re-evaluating the virtuoso pieces for the “real” depth everyone else was too unsophisticated to see. Finally, the empty spectacle of the virtuoso works themselves is valorized through play or irony or some other postmodern fetish. We’re all supposed to stop taking ourselves/art/life so goddamn seriously, admit that all pleasure is guilty, and surrender ourselves to Liszt.

Once we’ve come out the other end, where is there to go but back to the beginning, and call Liszt’s music for what it is: a generally uninteresting spectacle of excess? Isn’t it possible to acknowledge his historical contribution to piano performance—that I wouldn’t have had my dozen recitals to go to last year had there been no Liszt to invent such a thing—without also having to like his music?

Anyway, such were my thoughts—at least some of them—on hearing the brilliant young Chinese-born pianist Yuja Wang in recital at Carnegie Hall last October. She blazed her way through Prokofiev’s 6th sonata—Prokofiev’s piano music can never be played often enough, so say I—and then came back in the second half to play Liszt’s in B minor. It turned out to be a very long and painful second half. And the longer it went, the more painful it got. Don’t get me wrong, the rendition was technically perfect. But I still found myself squirming in my seat, wishing it were over. And when it was, even then I had not heard the last of Liszt: Wang played “Gretchen am Spinnrade” for one of her encores. (At least it’s a Schubert transcription.) Hearing the blind 2009 Van Cliburn competition gold medalist Nobuyuki Tsuji play “Un sospiro” and the concert paraphrase of Verdi’s Rigoletto in the same venue a few weeks later did not change my feelings. Nor did Peter Orth’s renditions of a Mephisto waltz and the Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude at Town Hall in late January. By this point I was starting to feel like a friend of mine who suffered through to the end of Ulysses just so he could say definitively that the book was crap, and no one could say to him, “Well, that’s because you never finished it.” And it was at the Yujo Pohjonen recital, somewhere in the midst of all that Liszt, listening to his beautifully balanced rendition of Beethoven’s “Pastorale” sonata—a sonata that, better than maybe any other, is characterized by a profound simplicity of thematic materials, developed so imaginatively, to reach such unexpected heights—that the difference between the two composers appeared most stark. Now, any time I hear Liszt, I can’t help thinking of the opening bars of the “Pastorale.”


     About a month ago, Fate once again threw a Liszt-shaped obstacle in my path. Maurizio Pollini had been scheduled to play two recitals this spring, one at the end of April, the other at the beginning of May. He canceled, and Carnegie Hall was forced to find substitutes. (It’s amazing how much text one can generate around the trials and tribulations of hearing/not hearing Maurizio Pollini; see “Encore,” 5.9.10.) I had tickets for the April show; unfortunately, they called in Garrick Ohlsson, a pianist about whom I have tepid feelings at best (see “Spring Peoples Symphony Roundup,” 6.15.11). And guess what he was he slated to play? That’s right: an all-Liszt program. Thankfully, I was able to change my ticket for May 6. I had never heard of the sub—a French Canadian pianist named Louis Lortie (that’s him in the picture)—but the program was worth the gamble: Beethoven’s “Waldstein” and “Lebewohl” sonatas, and a cocktail of ballades, nocturnes, and the barcarolle by Chopin. According to the gentleman in the seat beside mine, Pollini had been going to play one all-Chopin program and one all-Beethoven. Maybe Lortie chose the Beethoven and Chopin out of a sense of duty to what the audiences were expecting to hear, particularly after Ohlsson chose to play neither.* In any case, it was the specter of Pollini, rather than the ghost of Liszt, that hung over the afternoon’s performance.

If Lortie assembled his program out of a sense of duty, he did not play the Beethoven as though it were a duty, either to Pollini or to the audience. He played it … well, playfully, highlighting contrasts among ideas rather than continuity between them. This was particularly noticeable in the third movement of the “Waldstein”—the differences in tempo and dynamics between the climax of the principal theme (bars 55-61) and the digressions that follow—and in the “Wiedersehn” movement of “Das Lebewohl,” between the “variations” that erupt from the delightfully anxious see-saw main idea established in bar 11. Now, it’s rare that one will enjoy a sonata with which one is intimately familiar if it is performed too far outside the horizons of one’s expectations. That said, it’s always nice to hear the different accents an unknown pianist will put on the familiar. In Lortie’s performance, the ascending left-hand phrases played against the descending arpeggios at the end of the exposition of the “Waldstein” (bars 82 and 84) stood out in a way I don’t remember ever hearing before. It at once retarded the forward momentum of the passage and  imparted a sort of longing for the tonic just as the music was settling back into the bustling opening theme.

The last two times I heard the “Waldstein” live, there was either a memorable flub (Emmanuel Ax on those stamping chords at the climax of the exposition (bars 62-5)) or something that clearly contradicted the score (Leif Ove Andsnes, who ignored the tremolo in the restatement of the opening theme (bars 14-15 & 18-19)—a whole expressive dimension of the opening idea reduced to mere repetition).** There were no such clear gaffes or liberties in Lortie’s performance (at least that I noticed). Quibbles, certainly—a tendency to be little too staccato in the “Waldstein”’s tempestuous moments, when the sonata demands more romantic wash. But then it’s out of just such quibbles that one’s relationship with a piece of music grows. And then there was much in Lortie’s detail-work to be admired. The slurred octaves (thumb-pinky glissandos?) toward the end of the third movement (bars 462-70)—such an odd, brief flourish, just when we think there can be nothing left in the composer’s bag of tricks—were executed with Debussian wispiness. Compare this to those clanging, chord-scaling octaves in the last movement of the “Lebewohl” (bars 37-44, etc.): a train crossing, right in the middle of a movement otherwise characterized by playful, joyous motion. I had just heard a disappointing performance of this sonata a couple of weeks before, so it was nice to hear these octaves restored to their full, disruptive charm.

It was also nice to hear Lortie really drag out the mere 28 bars of the second movement of the “Waldstein.” The story goes that Beethoven had planned a much more capacious second movement, but scrapped it for the “Introduzione” we now have, turning the original Andante into its own piece. But Lortie’s emphatically, almost Gouldianly slow execution made of this “Introduction” its own piece as well, highlighting its spare, straining beauty, its struggle to reach a climax—a restatement and expansion of the opening, the bass embellished, descending stepwise (mostly) to G as the right-hand figure climbs to full-octave leaps, to a series of harsh high Fs suspended over G and A flat. The G reappears in a different register as a pivot between the two movements: a non-ending that initiates the principal theme of the Rondo, from which the melody settles easily back to the tonic C. Lortie very much played that note subito forte, emphasizing its double role as both irresolution and introduction. (Or did he do so on account of the misplaced applause after the first movement?)

Interestingly, Lortie’s Chopin, the concert’s second half, sounded more dutiful than his Beethoven—a bit stiff, a bit plodding. (And this in the opinion of an ever-recovering prog rocker, who tends to like his Chopin a little stiff.) After the Beethoven, I didn’t imagine his Chopin would lack the rubato so essential to bringing the composer’s music to life. But the Chopin seemed to grow on him; he was better on third nocturne than on the first, better on the ballades than on the nocturnes, and best on the barcarolle, which ended the program.

I’ll leave the Chopin at that—good, better, best—in violation of all canons of good writing. As for the encores, they were Chopin, too, all three of them—or rather two; he ran the second and third together; but then they are adjacent etudes from the Opus 10. The first was another nocturne; it was the best Chopin he played the whole afternoon. Do nocturnes played as encores always sound more satisfying than nocturnes played during the regular program? Because I recall having a similar experience with a nocturne-encore at a Pollini concert. And then that Opus 10 No. 4 etude … could Lortie have known that was a perennial favorite Pollini encore for as well? When he was finished, I couldn’t help turning around to scan the rear of the auditorium. I half-expected to see the man in the flesh, standing in the very last row, applauding.


* Two notes. First, as I would learn from the review in the Times, Lortie had replaced Pollini once before, in 2003. Second, Lortie is no stranger to Liszt. He played the entire Années de pèlerinage in March 2011 at Alice Tully Hall. So maybe he felt he had already done his duty to the composer during the actual bicentennial year.

** No offense intended. Both their “Waldstein”s were otherwise lovely, as has been pretty much everything else I’ve had a chance to hear them perform.

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