Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin has the key to unlocking the greatness of composer Franz Liszt.
I had a major "Aha!" moment over Franz Liszt this past weekend, and it was thanks to pianist Evgeny Kissin.
I have friends who study and perform Liszt's music. One even has a huge, beautiful golden bust of the composer in his apartment. And — on paper, at least — all the accolades for Liszt, whose bicentennial birthday is celebrated this year, seemed to make sense to me.
As pianist Stephen Hough points out in his thoughtful essay in the Guardian, Liszt was a pioneer in many areas but is still misunderstood. Never mind that he invented the whole pianist-as-rock-star thing; Liszt the composer, Hough notes, was far ahead of his time:
The view of his music as superficial was abandoned as the 20th century progressed. Wagner learned more from Liszt's early experimentation with chromatic harmony than he liked to admit, and the Hungarian laid out the vocabulary of stark rhythmic primitivism that Bartók, his compatriot, would build on so fruitfully: Some of Liszt's final piano works, such as the Csárdás Macabre, create textures and colors that Bartók used unaltered. Their percussive atonality opened a door for a whole century of piano music.
So if Liszt is so great, such an innovative composer, why do I have trouble connecting with much of his music? Maybe I've heard too much bad Liszt? Yes, even Hough notes there's no lack of second-rate pieces: "There is enough wheat in Liszt's work to secure his place as one of the great composers, but enough chaff to risk distracting us from that recognition."
Along with those Liszt fans, I also have friends and colleagues who remain unconvinced. Even the respected Tim Page, who won a Pulitzer for his classical music criticism in the Washington Post, once wrote in a review: "I confess a marked distaste for most of Franz Liszt's music and would happily have forgone the 35-minute Sonata in B minor that concluded the formal program. Still, if Liszt we must have, let it be played like this..."
Page was reviewing a 1998 concert by ... who else? Evgeny Kissin.
As I sat in the cavernous Kennedy Center Concert Hall Saturday afternoon, listening to the 39-year-old Kissin play thousands upon thousands of notes in an all-Liszt recital, I realized two things: what all the fuss is about over Liszt, and it takes a monumental performer to bring this music to life.
Kissin can conjure sounds from a piano that nobody else can. He made the brooding bells that tolled in the very beginning of "Funerailles" sound as if they were radiating out of the organ pipes at the back of the stage. In the central section, he layered the climax into such a controlled roar, one might have thought a freight train was passing by; the piano was literally quaking. But in "Vallee d'Obermann," light Chopin-like runs had the quality of an oboe. It was truly unforgettable.
I'm not the only one who fell under the Kissin/Liszt spell. The Baltimore Sun's Tim Smith was also at the performance and wrote about it in his blog.
Kissin clearly relished the opportunities Liszt provided to bring out from the piano a whole orchestra's worth of diverse and meaningful sound. Throughout the afternoon, the pianist made Liszt's music sing and sigh and soar. Never a vulgar measure, never an obvious, playing-to-the-balcony effect. Just pure, involving musicality that carried him in style from the "Ricordanza" Transcendental Etude to the drama-rich "Funerailles" to the sparkling picture postcards from "Venezia e Napoli."
And then there was the Sonata in B minor. In one continuous, evolving movement, Liszt provides everything from violent storms to peaceful meditations and a textbook's worth of special effects. Kissin tossed off the treacherous double octaves in such a way that you were stunned not by his incredible accuracy but instead by the music itself, which, at its end, pools into serene chords that predate Olivier Messiaen's music by a good half century. After Kissin played the very final staccato notes, intermission lights glistened and audience members looked stunned.
After it was all over, I walked out of the concert hall, more than a little dazed and perhaps a little confused. What did I learn? I certainly learned to love some of Liszt's piano music. And that's a good thing. But what's troublesome is that after Kissin, Liszt in anyone else's hands is bound to be a disappointment.
If you have your own love-him-or-leave-him Liszt stories, or a favorite piece other music lovers should hear, please let us know in the comments section.
Here's a sample of Kissin playing the last section of the B minor Sonata in Tokyo in 1998.