Liszt at Yamaha

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A Concert Series Celebrating an Adored--and Maligned--Genius

by Lisa Yui

Franz Liszt is probably one of the most exalted and, at the same time, denigrated major musicians.  As a pianist, he is often believed to have been merely a bombastic charlatan.  “Serious” concertgoers sniff and say, “Ah Liszt?  Wasn’t he just a showman?  And a womanizer, too.”  Why is one scorned for having a superhuman technique (and, if one may add, since when is being appealing to members of the opposite sex the equivalent to being a superficial artist?)?  As a composer, many assume that all of Liszt’s music is virtuosic, attractive, but musically shallow and even cheap.  Therefore, being known as “a Liszt Player” implies that the pianist has fast fingers, but is superficial and showy.  Real connoisseurs do not play or listen to Liszt.  For them, there is Bach and Beethoven, or Busoni and Boulez. 

It is in order to dispel these fallacious notions about Liszt the man, the pianist, his music, and on pianists who play his music, that I have organized the eight-part Liszt at Yamaha lecture/concert series at the Yamaha Artist Services, Inc. (YASI), between March 22-May 4.

As a man, Liszt was most alluringly complex.  He was a saint, a devil, an aristocrat, a Don Juan, a Napoleon, a Byron, all in one.  A child prodigy, he became the most idolized virtuoso of his time, surpassing the fame of even Paganini.  He traveled throughout the European world, rave reviews and delirious women trailing after him. He was a great philanthropist and supporter of contemporary musicians.  He later became Abbé Liszt, receiving four of the seven degrees of priesthood, composing and giving masterclasses (never charging money:  “Génie oblige.”), teaching a whole school of great pianists of the next generation.

As a pianist, Liszt was the father of the traveling virtuoso, playing more extensively than any other musician of his time.  He revolutionized public performance when he introduced the solo recital in 1839.  Everywhere he went there was “Lisztomania.”  Liszt was also the father of modern pianismall pianists ought to bow at the feet of his image at the start of each day.  He literally changed the way pianists played their instrument, freeing the arms and playing by weight transfer from the back and shoulders to the fingers.  He championed the works of the past and the present alike.  Liszt learned to play to the audience as none had done before.  Many of his contemporaries despised what he symbolized, but none could deny his power to affect the audience.  

As a composer, Liszt is often looked down upon merely as a creator of bombast and noise.  But what of the ground-breaking Etudes?  the sublime Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude?  the evocative range and vision of the three books of Années de pèlerinage?  the sonorous mastery of the Hungarian Rhapsodies?  the grandiosity of the B Minor Sonata?  the lean, prophetic late works?  the illuminating transcriptions of songs, operas, and symphonic works which occasionally even improve upon the original works?  Liszt’s music is like the man:  it is a combination of nobility and sentimentality, poetry and sometimes vulgar effects.  But it is always bold and original.  He wrote with a new technical and sonorous understanding of piano, opening the way for the music of Wagner, French Impressionism, even Atonality.

On casual observation, the pianists Arthur Friedheim, Ferrucio Busoni, Claudio Arrau, Vladimir Horowitz, Louis Kentner, Jorge Bolet, György Cziffra, Alfred Brendel, Leslie Howard and Jeffrey Swann seem to have little in common.  Yet, all are known as advocates of Liszt’s piano music.  As Liszt himself, champions of his music are multifacetedbut all are similar in that they tackle his music with the earnestness of handling a Bach fugue.  As Brendel writes: “One has to take Liszt seriously in order to play him well. . . .  It is a peculiarity of Liszt’s music that it faithfully and fatally mirrors the character of its interpreter.  When his works give the impression of being hollow, superficial and pretentious, the fault lies usually with the performer, occasionally with the (prejudiced) listener, and only very rarely with Liszt himself.”

“Liszt at Yamaha” attempts to reveal some of the many sides of Liszt.  The series opens on March 22 with master classes and a lecture concert by Leslie Howard, who has recorded the complete piano works of Liszt.  Alan Walker, author of numerous books, including a three-volume biography of Franz Liszt, gives a lecture, “Liszt as Cultural Ambassador,” on April 13.  On April 27, Thomas Mastroianni, president of the American Liszt Society, speaks on the last two books of Années de Pèlerinage.  Then, there are six concerts, each covering a general theme: “Etudes of Transcendence” (March 23), “Transcriptions” (March 30), “The Diabolical and the Sublime” (April 6), “Rhapsodies, Impromptus, Ballades” (April 20), “The Traveler: Years of Pilgrimage” (April 27), and “Large Forms” (May 4).  Each work will be introduced with historical and musical commentary by myself.

The collection of over thirty pianists includes Manhattan School of Music students and alumni, as well as performers renowned for their performance of Liszt’s music: Jeffrey Swann, Jerome Lowenthal, Frank Levy, Christiaan Kuyvenhoven (a prize-winner of the 2005 International Franz Liszt Piano Competition), Gila Goldstein, Yukiko Akagi, Jae Cho, Minkyung Cho, Josu de Solaun-Soto, Geoffrey Duce, Evan Kory, Oxana Mikhailoff, Alexander Moutouszkine, Aleksandra Sarest, Nadejda Vlaeva, Ekaterina Willewald ,Yung Wook Yoo, Lisa Yui, and Yu Zhang.

Busoni wrote that, “[Liszt] lifted [the piano] to a princely position in order that it might be worthy of himself.”  Surely, with such an impressive battalion of musicians and scholars joining forces, “Liszt at Yamaha” will carry on Liszt’s legacy by continuing to raise his music to heights worthy of the composer himself.