About this Recording
8.553594 - LISZT: Piano Sonata / 2 Legendes / Gretchen (Liszt Complete Piano Music, Vol. 8)
English 

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Complete Piano Music, Volume 8

In Franz Liszt we have not only the most important figure among pianists in the nineteenth century, but a universal genius, who summed up in himself the whole development of piano playing since the invention of the instrument.

- Edward Burlingame Hill (1872-1960), American composer and teacher.

Stories about Franz Liszt's keyboard wizardry have been so numerous, and frequently of such an unbelievable nature that it is always interesting to note what his contemporaries thought of his playing. The English pianist Oscar Beringer (1844-1922) heard Liszt in 1870 and set down his impressions: "Words cannot describe him as a pianist; he was incomparable and unapproachable. I have seen whole rows of his audience, men and women alike, affected to tears, when he chose to be pathetic; in stormy passages he was able by his art to work them up to the highest pitch of excitement. Through the medium of his instrument he played upon every human emotion."

Liszt's Sonata in B minor, a work that has been called one of the mightiest peaks in the literature of the piano, is a composition which takes us on a dizzying journey of images and emotions. Writing to Liszt, Richard Wagner found the Sonata to be "beyond all conception beautiful; great, lovely; deep and noble - sublime, even as yourself." The Sonata was written by Liszt during his so-called Weimar Period (1848-1861). In 1849 Liszt settled at Weimar having enjoyed the title of Director Music Extraordinary for some six years. He now abandoned the career of a virtuoso to accept this position in earnest, and did so in order that he might be in a position to promote the works of other composers. On Wednesday, 2nd February, 1853, he completed his most ambitious and now most often performed work, the Sonata in B minor, dedicating it to Robert Schumann, who many years earlier had dedicated to Liszt his own finest work for the instrument, the Fantasy in G, Opus 17. The first public performance of the sonata took place on 22nd January, 1857, in Berlin at a concert inaugurating the first Bechstein grand piano. Hans von Bülow, who gave that first performance, wrote to Liszt of "an unexpected, almost unanimous success."

One critic called the Sonata in B minor, "Liszt's boldest experiment in original music for the piano alone." Why call it "an experiment"? Perhaps, because the piece is not, in the conventional sense, a sonata. It is in one contiguous movement; its themes are not formally treated in the sonata-manner. It is, in effect, a symphonic tone-poem, reduced in scale to the measure of the piano's resources. Yet within its single movement one can discover the elements of the sonata. All the leading characteristics of the form are fully maintained within the scope of the single movement, and as one analyst pointed out, "Liszt's Sonata constitutes a more complete organism than can be attained by three distinct and independent movements."

Rafael Joseffy (1852-1915), a student of Liszt, editor of Chopin's works, and professor of piano at the National Conservatory in New York, stated that the Sonata, "is one of those compositions that plays itself, it lies so beautifully for the hand." There is no doubt that the work is full of astonishing theme transformations, and the drama, the panache, the sensuousness and rhetoric that only Liszt could pack into a composition, but it hardly plays itself! The Sonata is virtuoso music at its best, a work that requires careful study and prodigious technique.

The Sonata in B minor opens in a portentous atmosphere with a motif which is encountered later on. From the gloom springs a broad theme in octaves which is said to have inspired Wagner's leitmotif for Wotan. This heavy descending scale passage is followed by a truly Lisztian theme of descending and ascending octave passages leading to a third subject with a drum-like accompaniment. The work is developed from these three themes. Konrad Wolff compared the development and structure of the Sonata with life itself, "with all its highlights and crises, its moments of repose and detachment, its emotional and spiritual involvements, ending in death and (during the final measures) transfiguration." Liszt perhaps had in mind the German philosopher Hegel's generally accepted proposition that the idea itself creates its contrast or, in Hegel's words, "unfolds itself in the form of being different." It is certainly a useful way of examining the sonata. There is no division into separate movements, yet the sections are clearly defined. A grand theme of broad chorale-like character forms the Andante sostenuto. It is developed (transformed) with the three introductory motifs, leading without pause into the Allegro energico which builds up into a grandiose finale. For the famous critic and Liszt enthusiast James Huneker the sonata was Liszt's most interesting work for the piano. He exclaimed, "What a tremendously dramatic work it is! It stirs the blood. It is intense. It is complex. The opening bars are truly Lisztian... Power there is, sardonic power... Is there a composer who paints the infernal, the macabre, with more suggestive realism than Liszt? The chorale, usually the meat of a Liszt composition, now appears and proclaims the religious belief of the composer in dogmatic accents, and our convictions are swept along until after that outburst in C major... But the rustle of silken attire is back of every bar; sensuous imagery, a faint perfume of femininity lurks in every cadence and trill... All this leads to a prestissimo finale of startling splendour. Nothing more exciting is there in the literature of the piano. It is brilliantly captivating, and Liszt the Magnificent is stamped on every bar!"

Liszt's Deux Legendes, St Franrçois d'Assise: La prédication aux oiseaux (St Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds) and St. Franrçois de Paule: marchant sur les flots (St Francis of Paola walking on the waves), are true programme music. They were composed at the beginning of the 1860s and first performed in Pest by the composer on 29th August 1865. St Francis of Assisi cherished a hallowed love for animals of every kind. He preached to fish as well as to birds and in one case converted a wolf. His address to the feathered congregation is recorded in The Little Flowers of Saint Francis. It runs in part as follows: "My little sisters, the birds, much bounded are ye unto God, your Creator, and in every place ye ought to praise Him, for that He hath given you liberty to fly about everywhere, and hath given you also double and triple raiment... Still more are you beholden to Him for the element, the Air, which He hath appointed for you. Beyond all this ye sow not, neither do ye reap, and God feedeth you and giveth you the streams and fountains for your drink... And therefore, my little sisters, beware of the sin of ingratitude and study always to offer praises unto God." In his preface to this work, Liszt writes. "My lack of ingenuity, and perhaps also the narrow limits of musical expression possible in a work of small dimensions, written for an instrument so lacking in variety of accent and tone colour as the piano, have obliged me to restrain myself and greatly to diminish the wonderful profusion of the text of the Sermon to the little birds. I implore the glorious poor servant of Christ to pardon me for thus impoverishing him." Despite Liszt's apology, this piano work is an astonishing tone-poem depicting in a musically graphic way the story of St Francis of Assisi.

In S. Francis of Paola walking on the waves Liszt re-creates in pianistic terms St Francis of Paola's hymn of thanksgiving for his safe journey across the Straits of Messina. The legend tells us that St Francis of Paola was refused passage by the boatman because he had no money to pay for it, whereupon the saint threw his cloak upon the waters and on it was borne safely and triumphantly to his destination. That the journey was not without its dangers is disclosed by the music, which is descriptive of the tumult of the sea, but throughout there is the noble song of the never-wavering faith of the saint. This work caused Camille Saint-Saëns to write: "I picture myself once more in the home of Gustave Dore gazing upon Liszt's pallid face and those eyes which fascinated all listeners, whilst, beneath his apparently indifferent hands, in a wonderful variety of nuances, there moaned and wailed, murmured and roared the waves of the Legende de St. François de Paule: marchant sur les flots. Never again will there be seen or heard anything to equal it."

According to Peter Raabe, Liszt transcribed Gretchen for piano solo in 1874. Gretchen is the second movement of the Faust Symphony, which was begun in 1854 and completed in 1857. In a letter dated 25th February, 1867, however, Liszt mentions that Carl Tausig (1841-1871) performed Gretchen in Leipzig. The New Budapest edition of Liszt's works points out that, since it is unlikely that the movement was performed in some other arrangement at that time, we must assume that Liszt completed his transcription of the movement by 1867. In 1858 Liszt authorised his star pupil, Carl Tausig, to prepare a solo piano version of A Faust Symphony. Although no score has yet been found of Tausig's transcription, another plausible assertion would be that Tausig performed his own version of the work and Liszt actually transcribed his work in 1874. Despite this uncertainty about the date of completion, Gretchen was published in 1876 by J. Schuberth & Co. in Leipzig.

Liszt called his work, A Faust Symphony in Three Character Pictures (after Goethe). The second picture is that of Gretchen, the German diminutive of Marguerite, the principal female character of Goethe's Faust. After a brief introduction, the chief theme "characteristic of the innocence, simplicity, and contented happiness of Gretchen," is introduced. Pensive and somewhat passionate, it suggests unnamed longings and a certain restlessness. The short, often-repeated phrase that follows suggests to some commentators Gretchen plucking the star-flower, with the accompanying words "he loves me -loves me not," and at last breaking out into an exultant "He loves me!" We are then led to a second theme, full of dreamy abandonment indicative of the dawn of love. There is a passage of intense beauty, more emotional, more sensuous. Faust now enters to profoundly sad, sombre music with a tremulous accompaniment, but the sympathetic presence of Gretchen dispels the dark, oppressive thoughts. The change produced on Faust manifests itself in love-intoxicated strains. Soon after, Faust disappears from the scene and Gretchen is left alone with her memories of love. Liszt's piano version is a rich, almost symphonic transcription of the original orchestral score, but a few bars shorter. In his transcription, passages are often modified from the orchestral version so as to produce a better pianistic effect. In fact, this mostly quiet movement, is one of Liszt's sweetest and most angelic piano works.

1997 Victor and Marina A. Ledin, Encore Consultants.

Jeno Jandó
The Hungarian pianist Jeno Jandó has won a number of piano competitions in Hungary and abroad, including first prize in the 1973 Hungarian Piano Concours and a first prize in the chamber music category at the Sydney International Piano Competition in 1977. He has recorded for Naxos all the piano concertos and sonatas of Mozart. Other recordings for the Naxos label include the concertos of Grieg and Schumann as well as Rachmaninov's Second Concerto and Paganini Rhapsody and Beethoven's complete piano sonatas.


Close the window