LISZT: Sonata in B Minor / Deux Legendes / Gretchen (Jeno Jando) (Naxos: 8.553594)
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Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Complete Piano Music, Volume 8
In Franz Liszt we have not only the mostimportant figure among pianists in the nineteenth century, but a universalgenius, who summed up in himself the whole development of piano playing sincethe invention of the instrument.
- Edward Burlingame Hill (1872-1960), Americancomposer and teacher.
Stories about Franz Liszt's keyboardwizardry have been so numerous, and frequently of such an unbelievable naturethat it is always interesting to note what his contemporaries thought of hisplaying. The English pianist Oscar Beringer (1844-1922) heard Liszt in 1870 andset down his impressions: "Words cannot describe him as a pianist;he was incomparable and unapproachable. I have seen whole rows of his audience,men and women alike, affected to tears, when he chose to be pathetic; in stormypassages he was able by his art to work them up to the highest pitch ofexcitement. Through the medium of his instrument he played upon every humanemotion."
Liszt's Sonata in B minor, a workthat has been called one of the mightiest peaks in the literature of the piano,is a composition which takes us on a dizzying journey of images and emotions.
Writing to Liszt, Richard Wagner found the Sonata to be "beyond allconception beautiful; great, lovely; deep and noble - sublime, even asyourself." The Sonata was written by Liszt during his so-calledWeimar Period (1848-1861). In 1849 Liszt settled at Weimar having enjoyed thetitle of Director Music Extraordinary for some six years. He now abandoned thecareer of a virtuoso to accept this position in earnest, and did so in orderthat he might be in a position to promote the works of other composers. OnWednesday, 2nd February, 1853, he completed his most ambitious and now mostoften performed work, the Sonata in B minor, dedicating it to RobertSchumann, who many years earlier had dedicated to Liszt his own finest work forthe instrument, the Fantasy in G, Opus 17. The first public performanceof the sonata took place on 22nd January, 1857, in Berlin at a concertinaugurating the first Bechstein grand piano. Hans von B??low, who gave thatfirst performance, wrote to Liszt of "an unexpected, almost unanimoussuccess."
One critic called the Sonata in Bminor, "Liszt's boldest experiment in original music for the pianoalone." Why call it "an experiment"? Perhaps, because the pieceis not, in the conventional sense, a sonata. It is in one contiguous movement;its themes are not formally treated in the sonata-manner. It is, in effect, asymphonic tone-poem, reduced in scale to the measure of the piano's resources.
Yet within its single movement one can discover the elements of the sonata. Allthe leading characteristics of the form are fully maintained within the scopeof the single movement, and as one analyst pointed out, "Liszt's Sonataconstitutes a more complete organism than can be attained by three distinctand independent movements."
Rafael Joseffy (1852-1915), a student ofLiszt, editor of Chopin's works, and professor of piano at the NationalConservatory in New York, stated that the Sonata, "is one of thosecompositions that plays itself, it lies so beautifully for the hand."There is no doubt that the work is full of astonishing theme transformations,and the drama, the panache, the sensuousness and rhetoric that only Liszt couldpack into a composition, but it hardly plays itself! The Sonata isvirtuoso music at its best, a work that requires careful study and prodigioustechnique.
The Sonata in B minor opens in aportentous atmosphere with a motif which is encountered later on. From thegloom springs a broad theme in octaves which is said to have inspired Wagner's leitmotiffor Wotan. This heavy descending scale passage is followed by a trulyLisztian theme of descending and ascending octave passages leading to a thirdsubject with a drum-like accompaniment. The work is developed from these threethemes. Konrad Wolff compared the development and structure of the Sonata withlife itself, "with all its highlights and crises, its moments of reposeand detachment, its emotional and spiritual involvements, ending in death and(during the final measures) transfiguration." Liszt perhaps had in mindthe German philosopher Hegel's generally accepted proposition that the ideaitself creates its contrast or, in Hegel's words, "unfolds itself in theform of being different." It is certainly a useful way of examining thesonata. There is no division into separate movements, yet the sections areclearly defined. A grand theme of broad chorale-like character forms the Andantesostenuto. It is developed (transformed) with the three introductory motifs,leading without pause into the Allegro energico which builds up intoa grandiose finale. For the famous critic and Liszt enthusiast James Hunekerthe sonata was Liszt's most interesting work for the piano. He exclaimed,"What a tremendously dramatic work it is! It stirs the blood. It isintense. It is complex. The opening bars are truly Lisztian... Power there is,sardonic power... Is there a composer who paints the infernal, the macabre,with more suggestive realism than Liszt? The chorale, usually the meat of aLiszt composition, now appears and proclaims the religious belief of thecomposer in dogmatic accents, and our convictions are swept along until afterthat outburst in C major... But the rustle of silken attire is back of everybar; sensuous imagery, a faint perfume of femininity lurks in every cadence andtrill... All this leads to a prestissimo finale of startling splendour.
Nothing more exciting is there in the literature of the piano. It isbrilliantly captivating, and Liszt the Magnificent is stamped on everybar!"
Liszt's Deux Legendes, St Franr?ºoisd'Assise: La predication aux oiseaux (St Francis of Assisi preaching to thebirds) and St. Franr?ºois de Paule: marchant sur les flots (St Francis ofPaola walking on the waves), are true programme music. They were composed atthe beginning of the 1860s and first performed in Pest by the composer on 29thAugust 1865. St Francis of Assisi cherished a hallowed love for animals ofevery kind. He preached to fish as well as to birds and in one case converted awolf. His address to the feathered congregation is recorded in The LittleFlowers of Saint Francis. It runs in part as follows: "My littlesisters, the birds, much bounded are ye unto God, your Creator, and in everyplace ye ought to praise Him, for that He hath given you liberty to fly abouteverywhere, and hath given you also double and triple raiment... Still more areyou beholden to Him for the element, the Air, which He hath appointed for you.
Beyond all this ye sow not, neither do ye reap, and God feedeth you and givethyou the streams and fountains for your drink... And therefore, my littlesisters, beware of the sin of ingratitude and study always to offer praisesunto God." In his preface to this work, Liszt writes. "My lack ofingenuity, and perhaps also the narrow limits of musical expression possible ina work of small dimensions, written for an instrument so lacking in variety ofaccent and tone colour as the piano, have obliged me to restrain myself andgreatly to diminish the wonderful profusion of the text of the Sermon to thelittle birds. I implore the glorious poor servant of Christ to pardon mefor thus impoverishing him." Despite Liszt's apology, this piano work isan astonishing tone-poem de