About this Recording
8.573458 - LISZT, F.: Grandes études de Paganini / 6 Etudes d'exécution transcendante d'après Paganini (Filipec) (Liszt Complete Piano Music, Vol. 42)
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Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
Paganini Studies
Grandes études de Paganini, S141/R3b • Etudes dʼexécution transcendante dʼaprès Paganini. S140/R3a • Le Carnaval de Venise, S700/R665


Paganini vient de mourir. En lui s’est éteint un de ces souffles puissants que la nature semble avoir hâte de rappeler à elle; avec lui disparaît un phénomène unique dans la sphère de l’art.

Paganini has died. In him is extinguished one of these powerful breaths of air that nature seems in a hurry to call to herself; with him disappears a phenomenon unique in the sphere of art. – Liszt. Sur Paganini: A propos de sa mort, Gazette Musicale de Paris, 23rd August 1840

The violinist Nicolò Paganini enjoyed a singularly short, if scintillating, international career. Born in Genoa in 1782, he spent the earlier part of his life in Italy, only in 1828 embarking on a series of engagements abroad in a remarkable series of concerts, starting in Vienna, where Schubert heard two of his concerts. In Leipzig, where Paganini at first refused to play, Clara Schumann’s father, Friedrich Wieck, at least arranged for his young daughter to play to Paganini. A few years later Wieck was to secure an appearance for her with Paganini in Paris, an event that had to be cancelled through Paganini’s illness. In 1830 the young Robert Schumann had heard Paganini play in Frankfurt, finding inspiration for his own early ambitions as a pianist, and, in 1832, for his Six Piano Studies after the Caprices of Paganini, Op. 3, to be followed shortly by the fuller elaboration VI Concert- Studies after the Caprices of Paganini, Op. 10, with a representation of Paganini himself making an appearance in Schumann’s Carnaval. Liszt seems to have heard Paganini first in Paris in 1832, when the violinist’s phenomenal performance provided a stimulus similar to that experienced by Schumann. Paganini’s fortunes were soon changing. Illness and other misfortunes led to his death in 1840.

Among the works by Paganini that made such an impression were the 24 Caprices, Op. 1, works for unaccompanied violin, written in the early years of the century and providing both technical display and a revelatory summary of potential violin technique. These pieces have, since then, become accepted as an essential challenge to any ambitious performer. Liszt’s Etudes d’exécution transcendante d’après Paganini, dating from the years 1838 to 1840, and the 1851 revision of the work as Grandes études de Paganini, were dedicated to Clara Schumann, whom Liszt had first met in Vienna in 1838. The meeting enabled her to introduce to Liszt some of Robert Schumann’s compositions, notably Carnaval and the Fantasiestücke. Friendship between Liszt and the Schumanns weakened during the following years, with Clara Schumann growing increasingly critical of Liszt’s showmanship in performance and of the confusion, as she saw it, in his music.

Franz Liszt was born in 1811 at Raiding in a German-speaking region of Hungary, the son of a steward in the employment of Haydn’s former patrons, the Esterházy Princes. With the support of members of the Hungarian nobility he was able to move with his parents to Vienna, where he took piano lessons from Czerny and composition lessons from the old Court Composer Antonio Salieri, who had taught Beethoven and Schubert. In 1822 the Liszts moved to Paris, where, as a foreigner, he was refused admission to the Conservatoire by Cherubini, but was able to embark on a career as a virtuoso, with the help of the piano-manufacturer Erard.

On the death of his father in 1827 Liszt was joined again by his mother in Paris, where he began to teach the piano and to interest himself in the newest literary trends of the day. In 1831 Paganini made his first appearance in Paris, but it was in the following year that Liszt first heard him, his playing inspiring Liszt to new possibilities of virtuosity as a pianist. A liaison with a married woman, the Comtesse Marie d’Agoult, and the subsequent birth of three children, involved Liszt in years of travel, from 1839 once more as a virtuoso pianist, a rôle in which he came to enjoy the wildest adulation of audiences.

A breach in 1844 with Marie d’Agoult was followed in 1848 by Liszt’s withdrawal from public concerts and his assumption of the position of Director of Music in the Grand Duchy of Weimar, where he was accompanied by a young Polish heiress, Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, the estranged wife of a Russian nobleman. Liszt now turned his attention to new forms of composition, particularly to symphonic poems. Catholic marriage to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein had proved impossible, but application to the Vatican offered some hope, when, in 1861, Liszt travelled to join her in Rome. The marriage did not take place and the couple continued to live separately in Rome, with Liszt taking minor orders. This started a period of his life that Liszt later described as une vie trifurquée (a three-pronged life), as he divided his time between his comfortable monastic residence in Rome, his visits to Weimar, where he held court as a master of the keyboard and a prophet of the new music, and his appearances in Hungary, where he was now hailed as a national hero He died in 1886 in Bayreuth during the Wagner Festival, now controlled, since her husband’s death, by his daughter Cosima, to whom his appearance there seems to have been less than welcome.

For his first set of Paganini studies Liszt chose five of Paganini’s Caprices, Nos. 5/6, 17, 1, 9 and 24, with La campanella, its melody used by Paganini in the final Rondo of his Violin Concerto No. 2 in B minor. Liszt’s work starts with a Preludio, drawn from Paganini’s Caprice No. 5, and transposed to G minor The dramatic arpeggios and chromatic scales of this lead to a tremolo study from Caprice No. 6, with the cantabile melody sustained against tremolo accompaniment. Liszt’s revision of the study offers an alternative version, drawing on Schumann’s Op. 10, No. 2, which initially avoids the tremolo of the original work, providing a chordal accompaniment to the melody. The study ends with the flourish that had introduced it, now in G major. Liszt’s second study, based on Caprice No. 17, is primarily a study in octaves, thirds and sixths, but contrasts two registers, the rapid delicacy of its upper figuration descending suddenly to a lower voice answer, calling, in Liszt’s version, for crossing of hands. La campanella had served Liszt as the basis of his demanding Grande fantaisie de bravoura sur La Clochette de Paganini in 1832, a work generally superseded by the third of Liszt’s Paganini studies. The fourth study is a treatment of Caprice No. 1, which is presented by Paganini in various forms, its arpeggios replaced, as in Liszt’s second version, by chords based on arpeggios. The fifth of Liszt’s studies is a version of Caprice No. 9, also used by Schumann in his Op. 3, a work popularly known as La chasse (The Hunt) and in Paganini contrasting the flautando of the opening phrases, with the fuller sound of the lower register hunting-horns, a distinction made clear in Liszt’s version, revised with the preceding study. Contrasts of register and figuration lead to the return of the opening of the study. The set ends with a study based on the most familiar part of Paganini’s work, Caprice No. 24, the work that provided fertile material for Brahms and then for Rachmaninov. Like its source, Liszt’s study offers a theme, followed by eleven variations, the whole ending with an elaborate Coda.

The 1851 revision of the Paganini studies made slight adjustments to the challenges of the earlier version. The second study, for example, avoids the crossing of hands that had added complication to the lower register answering phrase, the third study, La campanella, now appears in G sharp minor rather than the earlier A flat minor. Still preserving its wide leaps, the revised study makes more telling use of the repeated sound of the little bell of the title, heard in its own higher register. The fourth study now appears on one stave, although using both left and right hands and avoiding the octave doubling of the first version, and doubling of parts gives way to lighter textures in La chasse. The tendency to use lighter textures in the revised version continues with the final Theme and Variations. The sixth variation is marked con strepito in the earlier version and con brio in the revised version, and in the eighth wide stretches are replaced by more approachable intervals. The ninth, originally marked fantasticamente becomes simply staccato (quasi pizzicato) following Paganini’s study in left-hand pizzicato.

Paganini made use of a popular Italian song, O mamma, mamma cara, as a theme for a set of twenty variations, under the title Il carnevale di Venezia. Liszt used the same melody and title for a demanding set of piano variations on the same theme, at first presented in its simple original form. The variations by Liszt, generally catalogued as incomplete, have been brought nearer a state of completion by more recent recourse to bibliographical material that has since become available and by editorial attention. The variations as offered in Liszt’s Le Carnaval de Venise are of increasing complexity in their ultimate technical demands, their course interrupted by a sudden break, followed by a burst of Lisztian virtuosity.

Keith Anderson

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