Complete Piano Music,Volume 1
I consider Liszt thegreatest man I have ever met. By this I mean that I have never met, in anyother walk of life, a man with the mental grasp, splendid disposition, andglorious genius. This may seem a somewhat extravagant statement. I have metmany, many great men, rulers, jurists, authors, scientists, teachers, merchantsand warriors, but never have I met a man in any position whom I have notthought would have proved the inferior of Franz Liszt, had Liszt chosen tofollow the career of the man in question. Liszt's personality can only beexpressed by one word, "colossal. "
-Alfred Reisenauer(1863-1907), German pianist, composer, teacher and Liszt student.
Franz Liszt'sinfluence on the nineteenth century was overwhelming and through his numerousstudents, his strong musical presence influenced piano performance andcomposition into the twentieth century. His works inspired many of thecomposers of his time and Liszt was able, during his years as a touringvirtuoso, to promote their compositions as well as those of his own. Later, inhis position as head of the Weimar orchestra and opera-house, he was an importantinfluence on current tastes, tirelessly promoting the works of hiscontemporaries. In his later years, Liszt did his best to promote the works ofthe newer Russian school of composers, including Borodin and Mussorgsky.
Numerous other composers - Grieg, Smetana, Glazunov, and of course, Wagner,have written copiously about the value they placed on Liszt's moralencouragement as an important aid in their careers. As one of Liszt's mostillustrious students, Moritz Rosenthal (1862-1946) once wrote, "When onewas with Liszt, one felt the power of his overwhelming personality..."
Franz Liszt has beena grateful subject for biographers, factual and fictional. He possessed everyfeature of a romantic personage, as we of the twentieth century are apt toportray the great personalities of the nineteenth century. He had a brilliantbeginning as a child prodigy; he was kissed on his brow by Beethoven andstudied with Beethoven's greatest student, Carl Czerny. As a youth he was theprince of pianists and the leading artistic figure in European capitals at thetime when people in Europe were preoccupied with glamour rather than work or war. He woreflowing hair and had a wild appearance about him; he loved women, and womenloved him; and in his middle age he became an Abbe, as some sinners do inromantic novels. Liszt wrote music with expressive and meaningful titles, oftenwith a poem for an epigraph; and he was unquestionably, with Wagner, thefellow-creator of the "music of the future," so designated for itsquality of hugeness of design and grandiloquence of idiom.
As a pianist, Lisztwas unique, in the true meaning of the word. According to Felix Mendelssohn,"Liszt possesses a degree of velocity and complete independence of finger,and a thoroughly musical feeling, which cannot be equalled. In a word, I haveheard no performer whose musical perceptions extend to the very tips of hisfingers and emanate directly from them as Liszt's do." What he was able todo as a pianist-interpreter, Liszt was able to do even better as a composer.
The hundreds of scores he wrote illustrated an astonishing command of thekeyboard and an even more extraordinary musical mind. Not only did Lisztcompose a vast quantity of original works, but he was throughout his lifecontinually compelled to transcribe his own and other composers' music for thepiano. How Liszt managed to find the time to accomplish all this can only beexplained by the fact that a genius works in mysterious ways.
The opening work on ArnaldoCohen's Liszt recital is a marvellous (and difficult) transcription of CamilleSaint-Saens' Danse macabre. Danse macabre was the third of Saint-Saens'symphonic poems. He composed it in 1874, and conducted its first performance ata Concert du Chatelet, Colonne concert on 24th January, 1875. Saint-Saens atfirst set Henri Cazalis' poem to music. When this song was published the melodywas considered by many performers unsingable and received a caustic receptionin the music salons. As a result, Saint-Saens used the sketch of his song asthe basis for the composition of the orchestral work. Here is an English versionof the verses:
Jig, jig, jig, Deathin cadence, Striking with his heel a tomb,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,Jig, jig, jig, on his violin.
The winter wind blowsand the night is dark; Moans are heard in the linden-trees.
Through the gloom,white skeletons pass, Running and leaping in their shrouds.
Jig, jig, jig, eachone is frisking,
The bones of thedancers are heard to crack -
But hark! Bold youngchanticleer heralds the day;
And Death and hisdancers have vanished away!
In a letter dated 5th May, 1874, to Professor CarlRiedel (founder and director of the celebrated Riedel Verein in Leipzig and later presidentof the AI'gemeine Deutsche Musikverein), Franz Liszt wrote, "Amongmodern composes I regard Saint-Saens as the ablest and most gifted." Twoyears later, on 2nd October, 1876, Liszt wrote to Saint-Saens:
Very dear friend,
In sending you todaythe transcription of your "Danse macabre," I beg you to excuse my unskilfulnessin reducing the marvellous colouring of the score to the possibilities of thepiano. No one is bound by the impossible. To play an orchestra on the piano isnot yet given to anyone. Nevertheless we must always stretch towards the Idealacross all the more or less dogged and insufficient forms. It seems to me thatLife and Art are only good for that.
In sincere admirationand friendship, Your very devoted F. Liszt
Clearly, Liszt wasmuch too modest.
The transcription is written in a highly orchestral style that fires theimagination. Midnight strikes (the piano is an able substitute for the harp).
You hear Death tuning his fiddle and the clattering of the dancers' bones isdecidedly chilling. For the pianist, the grisly merriment grows wilder andwilder (and often even sounds more ominous) and then the dancing is cut shortas the first streak of daylight brightens, the skeletons vanish, the SupremeConcertmaster grins ironically as he packs his fiddle, and again -for a littlewhile -the birds sing heedlessly in the orchard and the living forget theirdoom.
From sinister anddevilish, we move to a mood of hopelessness. Nuages gris (Grey Clouds)is one of Liszt's noted laments. Composed in 1881, its form is extremelysimple, the second half of the piece is essentially nothing more than a repeatof the first. Yet the work, with its unusual harmonies and dissonances isalmost impressionistic in character, and definitely far ahe