Thursday 25 August 2022

Salzburg Festival (4) - Levit: Bartók, Schumann, Wagner, and Liszt, 24 August 2022

Grosses Festspielhaus

Bartók: Out of Doors, Sz 81
Schumann: Waldszenen, op.82
Wagner, arr. Zoltán Kocsis: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I
Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor, S.178

Igor Levit (piano)

Image: SF / Marco Borrelli

For this Salzburg Festival recital, Igor Levit offered a programme of piano music—and, in one case, orchestral music transcribed for the piano—rich in connections explicit and implicit, and beautifully balanced too. Programming is in many ways an art in itself, yet not of course quite in itself: the music needs to be performed at least as compellingly as it has been assembled. There was little problem in that respect here, given performances that never took the works in question for granted, always looked—and listened—afresh.

Bartók’s Out of Doors suite was a welcome choice to open. The drums and pipes of the opening piece gave neither pianist nor audience time to adjust. Poundingly percussive from the word go, it was always much more than that, though: melody and harmony, as ever in Bartók, at least as crucial as the initially startling melodic element. Levit understood and conveyed this, not only here but in the following pieces of very different, highly contrasted character. This suggested what a treat we might have in store from the Sonata and the Piano Concertos; let us hope they are only just around the corner. The ‘Barcarolla’ emerged as a mysterious heir to Chopin et al., those others certainly including Liszt, especially the Liszt of those lugubrious late Venetian works. I thought I heard a kinship to Prokofiev too: less expected, perhaps, but making a great deal of chronological sense. (Kinship need not mean influence in either direction.) Levit’s variety of articulation in service of the musical idea was just the thing to tease out its secrets. Delicately insistent, the ‘Musettes’ presented yet another winding, post-Romantic way, sharply contrasted by the night music of the fourth piece. Bells? Birds? Breezes? Beasts? Who knows? It was certainly Bartók, at any rate, the beating heart of the work as a whole. Independence of hands, the very foundation of Lisztian technique—well, one of the foundations, anyway—was crucial here in delineation and communication. The final piece was every inch the finale, early echoes of the opening taking us along a very different, dancing path. Fiendishly difficult and infectious, this was the piece with the most transcendental virtuosity, in Levit’s hands a veritable whirlwind.

Schumann’s Waldszenen is another set of pieces one might expect to hear more often than one does. Here, it breathed a post-Bachian air, not only in its counterpoint, but in melody, harmony, figuration, and much else. The introductory piece gently placed us in medias res: storytelling magic with an inwardness (Innigkeit) all Schumann’s own. The hunters of the second brought a degree of stormy release, ever precise, though, just as in Bach. Deceptively, captivatingly ‘einfach’ or simple, ‘Einsame Blümen’ offered as keen a note of fantasy as anything else: a note struck, in various ways, throughout the set, not least in a questing ‘Freundliche Landschaft’. In between, the dignified pathos, both directed and a little wayward, of ‘Verrufene Stelle’ hinted at a fugal mind deconstructed. A friendly wayside inn (‘Herberge’) and dignified ‘Vogel als Prophet’, the latter’s animation almost yet never quite suspended, took us into the sky before coming properly back down to earth in a rhythmically generative ‘Jagdlied’ that, in context, suggested memories of Bartók. Schumann’s epilogues are always things of wonder; here was a fond ‘Abschied’ indeed, its reluctance to close as touching as it was understandable.

Nietzsche famously declared he would not touch the score of Tristan und Isoldewithout wearing gloves. There was no doubting the dangers of its opening Prelude here, in a 1978 transcription by Zoltán Kocsis. More flexible than one would expect from an orchestra, it became a forerunner of late Liszt, ever struggling, ever becoming, endless in melody—until, that is, one realised that it was actually taking its cue from earlier Liszt, in the guise of the Sonata into which its close dissolved. We shall never finally disentangle the mutual influence and affinities of the two composers; here was a good reason perhaps not even to try, musical threads all the more dangerously intoxicating with ‘dies süsse Wortlein: und’: Wagner und Liszt.  

In that vein, the beginning of the exposition proper sounded like another chapter in the same story, beginning with Wagner, moving to those shockingly ‘new’ (even now) Liszt scales of the introduction, and new bursting forth in other, neue Bahnen, to quote Schumann on a young composer (Brahms) who certainly did not appreciate this work, allegedly falling asleep (!) when Liszt played it to him. That almost novelistic sense of pages, even chapters being turned was, I think, a particular characteristic of Levit’s performance, Liszt’s supreme Faustian bargain turned almost literally into a nineteenth-century page-turner. The composer’s formal concision can hardly be gainsaid here, but a complementary expansiveness was revealed as the other side to a coin of seemingly endless transition. There was time for grandiloquence as well as for silence; there was space for rhapsodic freedom and constructivism. (To misquote Dolly Parton, it takes a lot of organisation to sound that free.) With Liszt, especially here, several balls will often be in the air at any one time. The odd one may be dropped, but that is part and parcel of his generosity of character. With the structural outline firmly in place—there was no question as to the moment of recapitulation—there was no harm in occasionally pausing to ask a question, or even to admire the view. A divine comedy, a thoroughly Lisztian enterprise, was created before our ears. One had the sense, moreover, that it was a one-off, that a different tale would have been told on another occasion.

 With quiet dignity, the poet spoke (‘Der Dichter spricht’) for a Schumann encore. On a more modest yet not necessarily less eloquent level, Romantic rhetoric held us once again in its sway.