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8.570984 - LISZT, F.: Soirees italiennes / Paganini Etudes / Impromptu brillant sur des themes de Rossini et Spontini (Liszt Complete Piano Music, Vol. 30)
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Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
Soirées italiennes
Grandes études de Paganini, Nos. 1, 4 and 6
Impromptu brillant sur des thèmes de Rossini et Spontini
Sept variations brillantes sur un thème de Rossini


How inventively and powerfully he submerges the melodic blossoms of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Mercadante in the billowing flow of his music so that they are clothed in ever new charms, now with the heavenly grace of Aphrodite, now with the teasing playfulness of sporting Naiads, now with the sublime gravity of the God that commands the sea!
– Carlo, Wiener Zeitschrift für Kunst, 7 December 1839

Born at Raiding, in Hungary, in 1811, the son of Adam Liszt, a steward in the service of Haydn’s former patrons, the Esterházy Princes, Franz Liszt had early encouragement from members of the Hungarian nobility, allowing him in 1822 to go to Vienna, for lessons with Czerny and a famous meeting with Beethoven. From there he moved to Paris, where Cherubini refused him admission to the Conservatoire, as a foreigner. Nevertheless he was able to impress audiences by his performance, now supported by the Erard family, piano manufacturers whose wares he was able to advertise in the concert tours on which he embarked. In 1827 Adam Liszt died, and Franz Liszt was now joined again by his mother in Paris, while using his time to teach, to read and benefit from the intellectual society with which he came into contact. His interest in virtuoso performance was renewed when he heard the great violinist Paganini, whose technical accomplishments he now set out to emulate.

The years that followed brought a series of compositions, including transcriptions of songs and operatic fantasies, part of the stock-in-trade of a virtuoso. Liszt’s relationship with a married woman, the Comtesse Marie d’Agoult, led to his departure from Paris for years of travel abroad, first to Switzerland, then back to Paris, before leaving for Italy, Vienna and Hungary. By 1844 his relationship with his mistress, the mother of his three children, was at an end, but his concert activities continued until 1847, the year in which his association began with Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a Polish heiress, the estranged wife of a Russian prince. The following year he settled with her in Weimar, the city of Goethe, turning his attention now to the development of a newer form of orchestral music, the symphonic poem, and, as always, to the revision and publication of earlier compositions.

It was in 1861, at the age of fifty, that Liszt moved to Rome, following Princess Carolyne, who had settled there a year earlier. Divorce and annulment seemed to have opened the way to their marriage, but they now continued to live in separate apartments in the city. Liszt eventually took minor orders and developed a pattern of life that divided his time between Weimar, where he imparted advice to a younger generation, Rome, where he was able to pursue his religious interests, and Pest, where he returned now as a national hero. He died in 1886 in Bayreuth, where his daughter Cosima, widow of Richard Wagner, lived, more concerned with the continued propagation of her husband’s music.

Liszt made a large number of free arrangements, transcriptions and paraphrases of music by other composers, works that were a necessary part of his concert repertoire. His Soirées italiennes, Six amusements pour piano sur des motifs de Mercadante, dedicated to the Archduchess Elisabeth of Austria, née Royal Princess of Savoy, Carignano etc., Vice-Reine of the Realm of Lombardy-Venezia, written in 1838, are free piano arrangements of the work of the same name by Mercadante, his Serate italiane, a collection of eight ariettas and four duos for solo voices and piano, settings of verses by Jacopo Crescini, librettist of Mercadante’s opera I briganti, and Carlo Pepoli, librettist of Bellini’s I puritani. In the autumn of 1837 Liszt had settled for the time in Italy, by Lake Como. The publisher Ricordi had made his box at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan available to Liszt, who was able to see the operas staged there, including Mercadante’s Il giuramento*. Liszt’s views on the state of La Scala, its audiences and its musical standards, published in a French journal in Paris, had caused him some trouble and this he did his best to answer by performing a work based on Mercadante’s new opera. Il giuramento was staged at La Scala in 1837 and had done much to re-establish Mercadante’s reputation in Italy, which was only gradually to be eclipsed by the growing importance of Verdi in the 1840s.

Liszt’s free arrangement of Soirées italiennes transmutes each song into his own characteristic musical and pianistic language. The set starts with La primavera (Spring), followed by Il galop, suggesting the rhythm of the popular dance. Il pastore svizzero (The Swiss Shepherd) opens with echoes of the alpenhorn and La serenata del marinaro (The Sailor’s Serenade) has its moments of turbulence, as storms threaten. Il brindisi (The Drinking-Song) is framed by its principal theme and the collection ends with La zingarella spagnola (The Spanish Gypsy Girl), a bolero, a dance of increasing excitement.

It was in Paris in 1832 that Liszt first heard the famous violinist Nicolò Paganini. It was this occasion that inspired Liszt to the fulfilment of a new ideal, to become the Paganini of the piano. On the violin Paganini, who had started his international career only in 1828, achieved technical miracles, and this offered Liszt a new aim, to be achieved, in the first place, by hard work. In 1838 Liszt wrote his own Etudes d’exécution transcendante d’après Paganini, a set of six demanding studies based on Paganini’s Capricci for solo violin and other works, published in 1840, the year of Paganini’s death and dedicated to Clara Schumann. The set was clarified and revised for publication in 1851, originally under the title Grandes études de Paganini transcendantes pour le piano. The first study, framed by a version of the introduction and conclusion to Caprice No. 5, is an arrangement of Paganini’s Capriccio No. 6 in G minor, a study in which the melody is given a tremolo accompaniment on an adjacent string. Liszt reproduces something of this effect, while translating the piece into the idiom of the piano. The fourth study, marked Vivo in the revised piano version, is an arrangement of Paganini’s Capriccio No.1, an E major study in arpeggios. The sixth study offers a version of Paganini’s famous Capriccio No. 24, a theme familiar from its treatment by other composers, from Brahms to Rachmaninov and Boris Blacher. Liszt transmutes each of the eleven original variations into virtuoso piano writing.

Liszt’s Impromptu brillant sur des thèmes de Rossini et Spontini was written in 1824, the year in which the twelve-year-old boy made his début in Paris. It was published in Vienna the following year as Op. 3, and dedicated to Countess Eugénie de Noirberne. After a characteristic introduction, Liszt introduces a theme from Rossini’s La donna del lago (The Lady of the Lake), followed by a duo from Armida. A brief cadenza leads to a chorus from Spontini’s Olimpie and the work ends with a theme from the same composer’s Fernand Cortez.

The Sept variations brillantes sur un thème de Rossini, dedicated to Madame Panckoucke, a member of the distinguished publishing family, also date from about 1824 and were published in Paris and London as Op. 2 in that year. The work starts again with an Introduzione, linked by a short cadenza to the theme, taken from Rossini’s opera Ermione. The first variation introduces runs of thirds and arpeggios, the second accompanies arpeggiated chords with rapid left-hand figuration. The third variation introduces octaves and at one point ninths, taxing for a boy of Liszt’s age, and the fourth, marked con fuoco makes further technical demands. The fifth, in the minor, makes use of a tremolo accompaniment and the sixth, in A major once more, is a Polonaise. The work ends with a display of virtuosity, marked Brillante con forza, an apt instruction.

Keith Anderson


*Kenneth Hamilton: ‘Reminiscences of a scandal—reminiscences of La Scala; Liszt’s fantasy on Mercadante’s Il giuramento. Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol. 5 No. 3, 1993.

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