Sunday 9 October 2011

Liszt Discovery Day, Wigmore Hall, 8 October 2011

Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth, S 382
La lugubre gondola, S 134
Die drei Zigeuner, S 383
La notte, S 377a
Tristia - Vallée d’Obermann, S 723
Hungarian Rhapsody no.9, ‘Le carnaval de Pesth,’ S 379

Pax vobiscum! S 64
Cinq Chœurs, S 18
Salve Regina, S 66
Psalm 116, S 11/33
Das deutsche Vaterland II, S 74b
Es war einmal ein König, S 73
Weimars Volkslied, S 87/2b
Magyar királyi-dal, S 93b

Six Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano duet, S 621
Zwei Episoden aus Lenaus ’Faust’, S 599
Hungarian Rhapsodies S622/2, S623a
Rákócsi-Marsch, S 608

As many of us have lamented (for instance, here and here), Liszt still cries out for advocacy. There are still anti-Wagnerians, anti-Brahmsians even, yet no one takes such people seriously. Many who should know better nevertheless continue to denigrate Liszt, recycling puritanical platitudes about showmanship, even womanising, doubtless incredulous that someone who, despite the lack of recordings, is almost universally considered to be the greatest pianist of all time could also be a great composer – all the more bewilderingly when one considers the testimony of composers from Wagner through Schoenberg, Bartók, Debussy, even Stravinsky, to Boulez and beyond. When Liszt’s works are performed, choices tend to be drawn from a narrow repertoire. This anniversary year should surely have brought forth London performances of his two completed oratorios (ideally St Stanislaus too), yet the silence has been deafening. Some musicians and venues have done their bit. We heard the two concertos from the dream team of Boulez, the Staatskapelle Berlin, and Barenboim (now recorded). Amongst other offerings, the Wigmore Hall’s programming of Liszt song has been especially welcome. One can understand, however, why Lisztians would wish to point to unsung aspects of the composer’s œuvre, and Leslie Howard, curating this Liszt Discovery Day, certainly took full advantage, in programming recitals of chamber music, small-scale choral music, and music for piano duet. Alas, the results, especially following the excellent chamber recital, were mixed, and seem unlikely to have won Liszt many converts. He would benefit from a more nuanced approach, which both advocates the neglected and yet also recognises that not everything is of equal interest, for Liszt, more inclined to create another version or another piece than to destroy something that perhaps does not work, is certainly not a cruel self-critic in the mode of Brahms. Moreover, entirely to omit solo piano music was arguably self-defeating: a top-flight pianist (and musician) is surely what one needs to dispel doubts.

Let us start with the best: two works apiece for cello and piano, violin and piano, and piano trio. Rarely if ever does one hear Liszt’s chamber music, doubtless partly a consequence of general hostility, but also, I suspect, a matter of unfounded suspicion concerning its provenance. None of the chamber works is ‘original’ in the sense that they all existed in earlier versions for other forces. Yet that need not matter at all, especially when dealing with an inveterate arranger and transformer, and in most cases, it does not here. Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth, despite its origins in a song of 1841, at times, especially in the piano introduction, sounds very much of the date of its rewriting: c.1883. Tristan Lee provided a rapt account of the piano part. Joris van den Berg captured the right note of ecstasy, though his tone could be a little wiry and was not always ideally centred in terms of intonation. That may, however, have been a matter of nerves, for La lugubre gondola emerged as stronger in performance. La lugubre gondola, one of Liszt’s many Wagner tributes, sounds more vocal in this version than in either of its piano incarnations, the opening in particular sounding still closer to recitative. Had I to choose, I should unhesitatingly opt for the darker solo piano, but I do not. The cellist’s fast vibrato will not have been to all tastes, yet I think it is a matter of taste rather than hard and fast judgement. Eva Thorarinsdottir proved an excellent violinist, one of whom I should like to hear much more. Both she and Lee exhibited impressive virtuosity in Die drei Zigeuner, another recomposition of a song (this time by Nikolaus Lenau). There was a fine display of rhythmic freedom, especially from the violinist, who throughout beguiled with rich, generous tone. This, rightly, was treated as ‘concert’ music but nevertheless laid idiomatic claim to a helping of ‘gypsy’ charisma. Lee’s piano tone was splendidly full for La notte, derived from the second of the Trois Odes funèbres, and ultimately from ‘Il penseroso,’ from the second book of the Années de pèlerinage. We heard here a fine account of the latter work, dignified and moving, with the violin ‘accompaniment’ adding menace, as well as splendid advocacy for the new and transformed material Liszt subsequently provided. If the central section is more conventional, a little too littered with ‘Hungarianisms’ (whatever Bartók et al. might have said of them), it is attractive enough and was attractively performed. Tristia – La Vallée d’Obermann also, as one might expect, has its birth in the Années de pèlerinage, though the first, Swiss book. It received a heartfelt, warmly Romantic performance from all three musicians, a winning vocal quality imparted to both violin and cello parts: songful and soulful. I should be keen to hear the piece again in this unexpected guise. Le carnival de Pesth was a little disappointing, plodding at times: as if, understandably, it were slowed in order to fit in the multitude of piano notes. It is a much less interesting piece than La Vallée d’Obermann, whose memory lingered welcomely.

The BBC Singers and David Hill, joined by Coady Green on piano, presented a true programme of rarities, to be broadcast across Europe on 23 October as part of the EBU Liszt Day. I could not help but think that it was too much of a not very good thing: larger choral pieces, other works by Liszt, or indeed by contemporaries, predecessors, or successors, might have leavened the load. The opening Pax vobiscum! would probably make a reasonable grace for a College feast or some such occasion, but is not the most interesting of pieces. At least it does not outstay its welcome, however, unlike the following Cinq Chœurs. The first of the choruses has some mildly Berlioz-like writing – reminiscent of, or rather foretelling, L’Enfance du Christ – but the monotony of much of the subsequent strophic writing was unfortunate. I suspect the music is more interesting to sing than to listen to; the BBC Singers certainly made a good job of it, with an impressive standard of French diction. Entered for a competition in 1845, I am not entirely surprised, however, that the pieces did not win Liszt a prize. The 1885 Salve Regina, S 66, would make a good addition to a cappella repertoires: generally simple, but with some intriguing chromaticism, not least in the bass line, and some moments in which tonality veers towards the suspended. That and Es war einmal ein König, a setting for baritone, four-part male voice choir and piano of the ‘Flea Song’ from Faust, were the musical highlights, the latter’s baritone solo well taken, if a little on the camp side. It was a relief, though, to hear proper Lisztian piano writing after the orchestral reduction – the full orchestra part no longer exists – of the vocal score version of Liszt’s setting of a text by the nationalist writer, Ernst Moritz Arndt, is barely more distinguished than the frankly appalling verse, which goes on and on and on in a vein that ought to have been intolerable in 1848 but certainly is now. Here is the first stanza (of nine, each set in essentially strophic form):

Was ist des deutschen Vaterland?
Ist’s Preußenland, ist’s Schwabenland?
Ist’s, wo am Rhein die Rebe blüht?
Ist’s, wo am Belt die Möwe zieht?
O nein! nein! nein!
Sein Vaterland muß größer sein.
It does not get any better. The BBC Singers sounded little more engaged than I felt, their performance sometimes veering towards unmusical shouting, and some of the solo lines sounding under strain, a tenor towards the end especially prominent in that respect. Desperately casting around for something of interest, I wondered whether there might be a little hint of Lohengrin in the seventh stanza, but it would surely have been better for Liszt’s reputation had vocal and orchestral score been lost. The two closing anthems were well sung, and less dull. Weimars Volkslied actually proved quite catchy, helped by a lively performance, whilst the Magyar Király-dal offered a more varied response to its text.

Sadly, the three talks of the day were still less likely to help the Lisztian cause. Howard’s own introductory address was an exception: generalised, but well delivered, with a palpable enthusiasm for the composer. Meirion Hughes on ‘Liszt the politician’ did not really address the subject, but gave a naïve sketch of nineteenth-century nationalism, into which Liszt was awkwardly shoehorned; the talk would not have passed muster from an undergraduate, let alone an alleged expert in the field. It was, moreover, disingenuous to omit without comment an anti-Semitic remark from a Liszt quotation. Imagine if someone had done the same with Wagner! Nevertheless, there remained a gulf between mere incompetence and the standard attained by the final talk, Michael Short’s ‘Liszt as conductor’. Having heard a considerable number of lectures, papers, presentations, seminars, etc., in a variety of contexts and venues, I can say that this was unquestionably the most hapless of my experience. If delivery were not the speaker’s strength, nor were ideas and argument. An audience, visibly restless, was treated to a mere listing, apparently read out word for word from a laptop screen, of programmes Liszt had conducted, along with monotonous readings, most of the material entirely irrelevant, from a few letters. Given the plethora of interesting, animated, and well-informed scholars and performers who could have contributed productively to such an event, the selection of speakers mystified.

Sadly, the programme of music for piano duet would have been unlikely to win over any Liszt-sceptics. It seems a funny way to persuade people to take Liszt seriously to programme six Hungarian Rhapsodies in a row (plus a couple more in the second half). This must be some of the least interesting, most meretricious, music he ever wrote. What might dazzle as a solo piece in isolation merely numbs the mind when performed in succession as here. Had Liszt himself been at the piano, one can imagine wishing to hear still more, but Howard’s pianism turned out to be still more ploddingly heavy-handed than his performance at a solo recital from the beginning of the year. There were a few glaring slips too, one repeatedly so in the first, F minor piece. At best, Howard’s performance was reliably mechanical, at worst bludgeoning. His partner, Bobby Chen, was in a different league, lighter of touch, though certainly not without power, and effortlessly superior in his shaping of phrases. The Two Episodes from Lenau’s ‘Faust’ were much better, largely because the music is so much better, though the difference between Chen and Howard was still highly audible. I am afraid I had to miss the final Rákócsi-Marsch, a transcription from the orchestral version, but could not help but notice the earlier departure of a good few non-coughing members of the audience, the bronchially challenged seemingly determined to stay until the bitter end. Results, then, were mixed, but I was delighted to have heard both the chamber recital and the musicians who performed in it. I also hope to hear Chen on another occasion, as a soloist.