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8.571282 - LISZT, F.: Sonata in B Minor / Grandes Etudes de Paganini (Biret Solo Edition, Vol. 1)

Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
Sonata in B minor • Grandes Etudes de Paganini


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’s Sonata in B minor was published in 1854, at a time when he was busy in Weimar with the revision of his earlier symphonic poems. Unlike these last, the sonata has no literary or extra-musical programme, but is itself a remarkable summary of Liszt’s own characteristics as a composer and performer. In a much enlarged structure of sonata form, it includes with its single, continuous movement, a remarkable formal innovation in itself, a slow movement and a rapid finale.

The sonata opens with a brief introduction, containing the first theme, a descending scale. There follows a more energetic and dramatic figure, with an accompanying secondary melody, forming the first subject proper of the sonata. A modulating passage leads to the second subject, in the form of a third theme, marked Grandioso. A third subject is added, derived from the second element of the second theme. The development of the sonata is in two parts. At first the three themes are treated in various ways before giving way to a fourth theme, which serves as a first subject for the slow movement, marked Andante sostenuto. The subsidiary element of the original second theme now appears as a second subject, the other themes returning in a middle section, before this part of the sonata comes to an end. As the music fades to the softest dynamic marking, the development of the whole work resumes with a fugal treatment of part of the second theme, followed by a recapitulation and a coda in which earlier thematic material returns, the second and first themes, in that order, bringing the whole sonata to an end, a formal tour de force.

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, and then as Grande Etudes de Paganini.

The first study 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, gradually extending its range and figuration as the work proceeds. The second study is based on Capriccio No. 17 in E flat major and starts with a dramatic introduction, marked Andante in Liszt’s transcription and variously elaborated. It is followed by the main body of the study, marked by Liszt Andantino capriccioso, in which the contrast of rapid scales and emphatic chords in a lower register is retained. A central section, in Liszt’s version Più animato, like the work on which it is based, makes use of octaves, before the opening, now further elaborated, returns. The third study is Liszt’s version of Paganini’s famous La Campanella, the finale of the Violin Concerto in B minor. 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, with the original direction imitando il flauto retained by Liszt. 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, retaining the character of each. The triple stopping of the eighth variation is transformed into a syncopated version of the theme and the original left-hand pizzicato of the ninth has the direction Staccato quasi pizzicato. The whole set ends with a triumphant climax.

Keith Anderson

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