BBC Music Magazine's '5 Essential Works by Franz Liszt' 2012
Recorded at The Maltings, Snape, UK: 15-18th May 2006
Produced & engineered by Philip Hobbs
Post-production by Julia Thomas at Finesplice Ltd, UK
Photography by John Haxby
Project Management: Caroline Dooley
George-Emmanuel Lazaridis is represented by Askonas Holt, UK
Booklet notes in English / Commentaire en français / Einführungstext auf Deutsch
As musical phenomena go, few have come close to equalling the impact left by the Italian violin virtuoso and composer Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840). His pan-European celebrity may have lasted only a decade, but no-one who experienced his pyrotechnical wizardry, emotional intensity and charismatic stage presence was left unroused. Writing to her brother Felix shortly after attending Paganini's Berlin debut in 1829, Fanny Mendelssohn commented that ‘through Paganini the art of violin playing has undergone a drastic change'. Likewise, his first appearances in Paris during March 1831 created a sensation. Thirteen months later, he returned to give another series of concerts, one of which was a benefit concert at the Opéra for the victims of the cholera epidemic which was then rampaging through the French capital. In the audience sat the 20-year-old Franz Liszt, himself the toast of Paris some eight years previously. Arriving fresh from Vienna (where he had studied with Carl Czerny), the 12-year-old prodigy had quickly become the darling of the city's social elite and his hugely successful public debut there earned him the soubriquet of ‘le petit Litz' (the French, it seems, never could get the hang of his name!). Inspired by Paganini's jaw-dropping feats of virtuosity and comprehensive mastery and understanding of his chosen instrument (‘What a man, what a violinist, what an artist!'), the undaunted and ambitious Liszt promptly set himself the challenge of effectively redefining the technical boundaries and expressive potential of the piano in the same way that Paganini had done for the violin. ‘For this fortnight,' he confided to his friend, Pierre Wolff, ‘my mind and fingers have worked like two damned ones. Homer, the Bible, Plato, Locke, Byron, Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Beethoven, Bach, Hummel, Mozart, Weber, are all about me. I study them, meditate on them, devour them furiously. In addition, I practise exercises for four or five hours (thirds, sixths, octaves, tremolos, repeated notes, cadenzas, etc.) Ah, provided I don't go mad, you will find an artist in me.'
Later that same year, Liszt's concentrated efforts bore fruit with the staggeringly demanding Grande Fantaisie de bravoure sur La Clochette de Paganini (alias the rondo finale of the Italian's Second Violin Concerto), the forerunner of indestructible Campanella study which eventually found a home in the Six Grandes Études de Paganini recorded here. Completed in 1838 and overhauled 13 years later, all but one of the pieces (No 3) are transcriptions of the 24 Caprices for solo violin (Paganini's Op. 1, written between 1800 and 1810 but not published until 1820). In point of fact, the first of Liszt's studies incorporates two caprices, arpeggiated and scalic flourishes from No 5 bookending its tremolo-accompanied G minor main melody from No 6. Next Liszt turns to the Caprice No. 17 to produce a deliciously
deft and glittering exercise in scales and double octaves, whose playful E flat major outer portions frame a more agitated C minor episode. This is followed by the famous La Campanella, a dazzling test of touch, agility and dynamics which has long since entered the repertoire of any self-respecting virtuoso. Notated on a single stave, No 4 in E major faithfully imitates the spiccato arpeggios of Paganini's opening caprice. No 5 shares its nickname of La Chasse with the Ninth Caprice and comprises a charming ‘hunting piece' complete with flute and horn calls which originally showed off Paganini's mastery of double-stops in harmonics. Last comes Liszt's transcription of the instantly familiar Caprice No 24 in A minor, a miniature theme and variations on a buoyant tune that has, of course, similarly taken the fancy of figures as varied as Brahms, Rachmaninov, Blacher, Lutoslawski and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Liszt's towering Piano Sonata in B minor was completed on 2 February 1853, nearly five years into his hugely productive 13-year sojourn in Weimar (during which time he also penned his Faust and Dante symphonies, Années de Pèlerinage and Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses, two piano concertos and all but the last of his 13 symphonic poems). Although published in 1854, the sonata had to wait until January 1857 for its public première in Berlin where it was played by Liszt's pupil Hans von Bülow at a concert to inaugurate the first Bechstein grand piano. Arguably the composer's masterpiece and generally considered the finest piano sonata to have been written since Beethoven and Schubert, its startling originality and daring intellectual and emotional scope well and truly broke the mould. Writing to the composer, Wagner declared Liszt's creation ‘beyond all conception beautiful: great, lovely, deep and noble - sublime, as you are', whereas Clara Schumann thought it ‘gruesome' and Brahms described it as ‘just empty noise'.
Such divergence of opinion is understandable. No-one before had attempted a sonata in one continuous movement, an extraordinarily ambitious half-hour structure that combines elements of traditional sonata form with its own riveting sense of internal logic and organic growth. Indeed, the very first page contains three striking ‘motto' ideas that sow the seeds for nearly all that follows. First comes a descending scale marked sotto voce - full of ominous undertow, it is destined to reappear at crucial points in the work's structure; next a jagged, forceful theme on octaves, quickly pursued by a menacing marcato idea in the left hand. A thrilling dialogue ensues, capped by the appearance of the gloriously noble Grandioso second subject in D major. Shortly afterwards, listen out for Liszt's masterly transformation of the left-hand theme into a lyrical melody of exquisite loveliness. At the sonata's heart comes a more contemplative episode: boasting a bewitching new idea in F sharp major (marked andante sostenuto), it rises to an ecstatically charged fff peak. The final recapitulatory section is launched by a driving fugato of memorable contrapuntal resource which leads to the compressed return of the opening material. Straining every intellectual sinew and exploiting to the full the pianist's technical armoury, Liszt builds the music to one last titanic climax. A dramatic silence ushers in the twilit epilogue: the andante sostenuto melody reappears to ineffably serene and illimitably touching effect and the curtain comes down on this compositional tour de force. Andrew Achenbach