The harmony she produces touches everyone directly...the music is
hers as if she were speaking. Everything appears effortless: whether in
most virtuoso transitions or moments of the greatest delicacy, she takes
the time to make every note speak...
Chopin & Liszt are both hailed as composers who belong, above all, to the piano. Liszt is perhaps the greatest technician the instrument has ever known, and Rubinstein described Chopin as the soul of the piano". Why, then, play these composers on the harp? Chopin and Liszt were practically the same age: Chopin was born in 1810 and Liszt a year later, although he outlived Chopin by thirty-seven years. At the time the majority of the works on this recording were written, both composers were living in Paris: such a thriving musical centre that Chopin wrote to Kumelski he had found the best musicians and opera in the world. The city was crammed full of pianos and pianists, eager to make their names in such an exciting artistic environment. Wherever an instrument enjoys so much social importance, so many good artists and fine manufacturers, many compositions will be written for it. But the piano was not Paris's only point of interest in the 1800s. The French Revolution of 1789 was accompanied by a revolutionary aesthetic movement - Romanticism.
The fashion for "fidelity to the score" so prized among classical musicians today in fact only began with the restrained performing style of Clara Schumann, and had not yet become a holy cow when Chopin and Liszt were composing. Par contre, Romanticism was moving away from the old Enlightenment ideals of reason, logic, and admiration for the Ancient World, towards art that was wild, individual, and powerful. In the salons of well-born Parisian intellectuals like Marie d'Agoult, artists and intellectuals like Berlioz, Heine, George Sand and d'Agoult's own lover - Liszt - hotly discussed music: its capacity for moral or political good, or the philosophical force which brought it, and the artist, closer to the gods. Liszt's extraordinary technical abilities paved the way for new interpretations, and indeed in the 1830s he saw too much textual fidelity more as a denial of artistic responsibility on the part of the player - what he called the "Pilate offence", washing one's hands of interpretation in public. If "tradition is laziness", as he also declared, perhaps it is time to hear at least the music of his early and middle periods on a different instrument.
Liszt's compositions varied dramatically in style. Criticism has not always been kind to Liszt in this regard, but as with textual fidelity, this is a matter of fashions of taste. With the motto genie oblige, Liszt saw the artist as the vessel for, or bearer of the beautiful, whatever form it might take. His move to Weimar in 1848 saw him forsake a career as a travelling virtuoso at the age of only thirty-five, in order to concentrate more on composing and particularly on more orchestral forms of composition. His public never really forgave him for this, and Liszt was often depressed by the lukewarm reception of his compositions, unlike the hysterical "Lisztomania" that had greeted his piano recitals. Nonetheless, there is no doubting the artistic sincerity behind his move to Germany. With the exception of the concert étude Waldesrauschen, S.145/1 in D Flat Major (1862-1863), all the Liszt on this disc is from the Weimar period.
The Caprice-Valse: Valse Mélancholique S214 (1850-1852) is a reworking of the Valse Mélancholique S210 from 1839: it is more reflective, in keeping with the artistic direction Liszt was pursuing at the time. Le Rossignol S250/1 ("the nightingale") also has two versions (1842 and 1853), both written in Weimar. Based on a song by Alexander Alabieff, it is the first of Liszt's two Mélodies Russes and while rather neglected these days, deserves a revival of its once-popular status.
Also from the Weimar period are the Romance ‘O pourquoi donc' S169 (1848) and the third Liebestraum (1850). The Romance was not reprinted in Liszt's lifetime, although Liszt reworked the piece in diverse versions (for viola and piano, then cello/piano, violin/piano and piano solo) when the Hannover publisher Arnold Simon wished to republish it in 1880. The third Liebestraum is the most famous of the three Liebesträume that came out together in 1850. All three were originally conceived as songs after poems by Ludwig Uhland and Ferdinand Freiligrath, about different forms of love. The third Liebestraum is about mature love, constant and unconditional in the face of human mortality. Liszt copied the first verse of Freiligrath's poem onto the score: "O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst! / O lieb, so lang du lieben magst! / Die Stunde kommt, die Stunde kommt / wo du an Gräbern stehst und klagst!" ["O love, so long as you can! / O love, so long as you will! / The hour is coming, the hour is coming / When you will stand at graves and weep!"]. Waldesrauschen, written shortly after Liszt left Weimar and proceeded to take religious orders in Rome, is a fine example of Liszt's concert études. These are more wide-ranging than Chopin's, which tend (with some notable exceptions, like the "Aeolian Harp" étude recorded here) to focus more relentlessly on one technical aspect.
Chopin, also in Paris, necessarily moved in the same circles as Liszt, but he was a very different artist. Liszt was the first pianist to play to more than three thousand people, on tour in Milan, while Chopin's more retiring nature preferred the intimacy of the private salon. He was in fact never comfortable among the Berlioz-Heine-Liszt group, uninterested as he was either in music as a political (revolutionary) force, or in the cult of the virtuoso artist. It is unsurprising that one of the first musical forms Chopin took up and made his own was the Nocturne, a genre invented by the Irish composer John Field. The early Nocturnes, like the B Flat Minor Nocturne from the 1829 Opus 9, show Chopin's continuation of Field's idea of an operatic, singing right hand melody, a gentle lyricism to evoke what lies within the private heart. It did not take Chopin long to introduce more and more original elements into all the forms he adopted. The C sharp minor Polonaise (1834) represents a striking development from the earlier Polonaises, with a vigorous and epic character beyond that of the traditional Polish courtly dance. As for the growing originality of Chopin's Nocturnes, Liszt himself commented that "we have seen the shy, serenely tender emotions which Field charged them to interpret, supplanted by strange and foreign effects...Chopin, in his poetic Nocturnes, sang not only the harmonies which are the source of our most ineffable delights, but likewise the restless, agitating bewilderment to which they often give rise." The great, late Opus 48 No. 1 in C Minor (1841) is widely regarded as Chopin's finest Nocturne, for Chopin's contemporary the pianist Theodor Kullak "a masterly expression of a great powerful grief ".
If Liszt was the dazzling, gods-inspired artist, Chopin evoked the dreamy shadows of the soul. Romanticism is however big enough for both of them: the grace, understatement and above all spontaneity of Chopin's style of piano playing fascinated Victor Hugo's Paris as much as did Liszt's flowing hair and brilliant display. The concert étude of 1836, romantically named by Schumann as the "Aeolian Harp" (it is also known as "the Shepherd Boy", after Chopin's advice to imagine a shepherd boy playing his flute while sheltering from a storm), is more of a challenge because of the inner counter-melodies, than through extrovert technical brilliance. The Waltz in D Flat Major Op. 64 No. 1 (1846), popularly called the Minute Waltz, was never actually intended to be played in under a minute. Chopin's publisher is responsible for the term, and meant "minute" as in very small or tiny. It is a charming little work, according to Chopin about a dog chasing its tail. The harp has its Romantic composers, such as the Englishman Elias Parish-Alvars, or the remarkably large number from Wallonia like Godefroid, Bochsa and Dizi. The era was also a harp heyday, but without transcription the two greatest masters of the Romantic instrumental solo elude it. Especially given that the harp and the piano also share a notation system that means harpists can often play piano music with little or no alteration, it seems a shame to miss out on some of the finest works the era can provide. For the musician, they offer a wonderful voyage of discovery. As for the music, transcription gives to and enriches it as much as it can commandeer it. The sounds and performance idioms of different instruments provide new colours; the audacious act can, in itself, surprise us into realising how many of our aesthetic value judgements are pre-conceived. On a practical level, transcription can bring a neglected work back into the limelight: Le Rossignol has benefi ted, somewhat forgotten by pianists as it is, from a surge of interest from harpists. For music, musicians, and audiences too, the musicologist Kenneth Hamilton points out that "Traditions, great or merely different, tell us not just about the potentialities in the music, but about the limitations of our own taste...questioning the eternal validity of the canon, and our performance practices surrounding it, can be profoundly liberating." There is no more reason why we should insist that only pianos perform particular works, than there is for us to insist on one performance aesthetic to be all things to all musics. In any case, to confine ourselves to any one style would be to miss out on the large and aspirational Romantic soul.