About this Recording
8.571273 - LISZT, F.: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Totentanz (Biret Concerto Edition, Vol. 4)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major
(First performed 17 February 1855 at Weimar by Franz Liszt with Hector Berlioz conducting)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major • Totentanz in D minor


Poor Berlioz had just five days to conduct and master a score which he had never seen before 17 February 1855. Next day it was Princess Marie’s eighteenth birthday and an enormous reception was held where Liszt performed his Transcendental Study Mazeppa in her honour. Allegro maestoso. Tempo giusto sets the scene for the first cadenza grandioso in the Piano Concerto in E flat. One can imagine that Sempre ff e marcatissimo, un poco ritenuto e molto rinforzando…Slargando il tempo a piacere—familiar to today’s pianists—was rather outlandish before the composer’s arrival. In reality, two cadenzas have already taken place before the ninth page of the score, yet only one is specifically listed. The second starts at fig. 40, but what wonderful changes of key and expression. Poco a poco stringendoanimato at the a tempo engenders excitement in solo piano. The orchestral wind colourings match perfectly using piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon, while the strings control the rhythmic flow. The soloist embellishes much of the time with orchestral sections commentating; their rapport is perfectly proportioned, with interplay all on the highest level. Impeto octaves, then a quick close to the movement (120) ushers in the second, Quasi adagio, after a short pause, This is a continuing colloquy between piano and orchestra, enchanting and passionate in a recitative style. The formula is: Poco a poco appassionato—Quieto—Allegretto vivace—Capriccio scherzando that leads confidently to a linking theme on flute, clarinet, oboe which alternates pizzicato strings with triangle at the Allegretto vivace. Hanslick renamed it ‘The Triangle Concerto’ and it stuck firmly in the composer’s favour. The soloist with the flute above milks the situation to its fullest extent, and at 150 the tension gradually eases. By 180, we are all set to begin the recapitulation. Now a minor mode sets in, and by 200 we return to the material and scoring at the start of the work. This reaches a state of such intensity that it becomes the sign to cease hostilities. The start of the third movement—Allegro marziale animato—is a link with the close to the previous one. The march-like sequence is interrupted by trombones in their marcato outburst that brings a strepitoso reply from the soloist. A skipping repeated quaver sequence—non legato distintamente—prepares for the final climax at a very fast speed (piano, winds, strings and brass) which returns to the motto theme from the beginning of the work for a blazing coda which rings forth on piano, strings and brass with feelings of resplendency.

Liszt took far longer in his revisions for his Second Concerto in A major. His admirers took up the composer’s suggested title of ‘Symphonic Concerto’ to relate it more directly to the symphonic poems that so enhanced the composer’s reputation as their ‘true founder’. The other main factor is Liszt’s penchant for metamorphizing his themes, whereby the opening lyrical melody in 3/4 descends from a dotted C sharp principal theme in true singing style. The solo pianist succumbs accordingly, adding one final cadenza as a persuasive gesture (prior to Letter P at the Allegro animato). The staccato brilliance, magical legato passagework, various glissandi, all lead boldly towards the final Strettomolto accelerando—and in measured tempi to the thrilling conclusion where horns, trumpets, trombones and timpani, winds and strings join up with solo piano for a resounding ending.

Twenty years after Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Liszt started his Totentanz for piano and orchestra in 1849. Following extensive alterations, it was completed by the composer in 1853 who then decided to revise it further, taking another six years in the process. First performed in public by Hans von Bülow at the Hague, the Netherlands on 15 March 1865 by the work’s dedicatee, the next notable performer was Alexander Siloti in New York on 18 March 1898, although it was reported that Chicago and Philadelphia performances by Edouard Hesselberg predated the latter. Sadly, Siloti’s pupil Alexander Kelberine committed suicide following his final 1940 performance.

Although the final Night of the Witches’ Sabbath from Berlioz’s youthful masterpiece with its celebrated use of the Dies irae was undoubtedly the original inspiration behind Liszt’s Paraphrase for piano and orchestra, various other theories have contributed to the Hungarian composer’s fifteen-minute epic and macabre exposition of theme and variations which, in its widest sense resembles a continuing battle between piano and orchestra. A series of sketches by Holbein, entitled The Dance of Death was the suggestion of Liszt biographer Richard Pohl, although Liszt’s impressions of the fresco The Triumph of Death in the Campo Santo at Pisa is more likely. Death and afterlife are here pictured by gatherings of human beings ranging from the poor peasants to the elite character-personages of princes, popes, and the like. Clarinets, bassoons, trombones, tuba and low strings begin the proceedings followed by a dazzling rising-falling cadenza from the soloist, but one is aware from the outset that Liszt’s favourite uses of free form would contribute to the variation writing to follow. The first of these literally dissects the theme, breaking it up and dividing it between the contestants. Next, follows a solemn rendition of the theme in the left hand, aided and abetted by solo French horn and pizzicato strings. The third effectively splits the theme between the soloist and his fierce orchestral, war-like colleagues, whilst the fourth is a beautiful canon where instruments literally beautify the surrounding moving elements of the pianist’s elaborate discourse. Lastly, the fifth variation treats the theme in fugato fashion, although listeners aware of the usual classical strictness of style inherent in music of an earlier century will suddenly find a total freeness of form which, instead, exploits the pictorial visions of devilish demons in grotesque gestures of body movements and facial expressions. Their weird, extraneous rhythms are personified by hard driven motifs that glitter, bang away regardless, and come complete with the inevitable Lisztian solo cadenza which prefaces the stark, final coda to this merciless exploitation of diabolerie.

Bill Newman

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