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Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, circa 1886. The 200th anniversary of his birth falls on Oct. 22.
W. and D. Downey/Getty Images
Poor Franz Liszt. With all of his sparkling compositions, musical innovations and staggering virtuosity as a pianist — not to mention the 200th anniversary of his birth on Oct. 22 — it's still fashionable in some corners to bad-mouth him. A Gramophone critic recently related the story of how his book publisher balked at the idea of including Liszt in a collection of 50 great composers.
And then there are people like pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, who see Liszt as one of the towering figures in music — and still underrated. Click the listen link at the top of this page to hear Andsnes spin and discuss some of his favorite Liszt recordings.
Fellow pianist Stephen Hough is another Liszt defender. He's not only been playing Liszt throughout this anniversary year, he's been writing about the composer, too. In the Telegraph (excerpted below) and on his blog, Hough points out a few of what he believes to be the composer's many virtues.
That it's 200 years since the birth of Franz Liszt seems like a misprint when you consider how his influence on the musical life of the 20th century was as great as on the 19th. The man who was born within an echo of the harpsichord was the most important inspiration and influence on the creation and development of the modern piano. The man who grew up in a world where pianists played perhaps just one item on mixed concert programmes ended up inventing the piano recital (his word) — pianist as star, at the centre of the stage for a whole evening, in profile to a concentrated, adoring audience.
Still, 200 years after his birth, Liszt is lost to many classical listeners. I admit I've had my own struggles cozying up to his music. There's so much that simply doesn't connect with me, compared to, say, music by Chopin and Schumann, the two other great piano composers whose 200th birthdays we celebrated recently. One thing I do know: Hearing Liszt performed by the best musicians can help. An all-Liszt concert a few months ago by Evgeny Kissin turned my head around about some of the piano pieces.
For Andsnes, the attraction to Liszt's music has a lot to do with colors.
"When you're playing Liszt you feel like you have an orchestra in your hands," Andsnes says. "He was starting to use all these tremolos in the bass, reminiscent of a bass and cello section in an orchestra."
And it's those colors, plus interpretive insights, that Andsnes finds irresistible in many of his favorite Liszt performances. In Dinu Lipatti's Petrarca Sonneto 104 there's "a level of refinement of pianistic perfection." In the young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang's B minor Sonata he hears the "fresh" and "rhapsodic" combined with "endless possibilities." With William Kapell's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11, it's the "burning passion and conviction," and in Geza Anda's Waldesrauchen Andsnes finds an uncalculated "element of surprise."
Perhaps Andsnes' most surprising pick is a 1936 recording of Bela Bartok performing Sursum Corda. "Often this piece is very static in performances," Andsnes says. "But here it moves forward with an inner ecstasy and happiness."
And then there's Liszt the man. Andsnes feels it's sometimes easy to look askance at Liszt when you focus too much on his reputation as a composer of flashy pieces, the ladies who threw jewels on stage at his electrifying performances and still more ladies (26 in all, we're told) with whom the handsome virtuoso had affairs.
"He was, sometimes, a kind of shallow pop star of his time, and there is music to underline that," Andsnes says. "Everything is done with a sense of pianistic perfection, but there are seductive pieces that are maybe not so meaningful musically today and seem rather superficial. And the figure himself, he seemed to be sometimes calculating with his audience in how to get success. And in that sense he's quite a modern figure."
But Liszt was also generous. He took on students for free and championed what was then misunderstood music by colleagues such as Berlioz and Wagner, who became his son-in-law. His interest in spiritual matters slowly increased, and by 1865 he had taken several holy orders of the Roman Catholic Church.
Perhaps listening to someone like Andsnes talk about Liszt and his music will open a few closed doors for those who are less than enthusiastic about Liszt. But let's give the last word to Hough: "While it would be a mistake to see Liszt as a saint, it would be even more inaccurate to view him as a fraud. And those of us who spend time with him at the piano usually end up thinking of him as a friend."