Liszt & Ravel Liner Notes

‘Love, delirium and death’ is the subject matter of this programme, most of which was first set down in words and then transferred to music. (In retrospect, delirium sneaked in more frequently, even when it was not intended.) In choosing the works, I was also careful with regard to their harmonic complexities and mutual relationships: to me, they share many implied links, whether thematic or harmonic. In my youth, I shied away from Liszt as I was afraid that I hadn’t yet achieved the necessary humility and would join the long queue of young pianists contribut¬ing to a less than favourable image of the ‘piano-smashing’ Liszt. I was always fas¬cinated by the introverted and delicate Liszt, however. It’s not that I mind show¬manship, as long as it doesn’t detract from the original musical thought. (Yet it is more difficult to forgive when showmanship is not backed up by an adequate technique!) Nevertheless I try to stay away from Liszt’s Greatest Virtuosic Hits because they leave me longing for more – as with Pringles, ‘once you pop, you can’t stop’.

While many of Liszt’s compositions stem from his religious beliefs, he was also preoccupied with thoughts about death, a dark theme that runs through many of his works. One of these, Funérailles, possibly belongs among his darkest and most tragic compositions. Subtitled ‘October 1849’, this magnificent elegy was written in memory of the many Hungarians who had died in the uprising against Habsburg Rule. (Coincidentally Chopin died in the same month and for a long time the piece was mistakenly assumed to be a tribute to Chopin.) The opening pesante in the left hand evokes the sound of funeral bells (inci¬den¬tally foreboding the more remote, monotonous B flat bells of Ravel’s Gibet). The texture provides an ugly, dissonant sludge of sound while the right hand climbs up in chromatic fashion – all of this snowballing into an unbearable, deafening roar. Eventually the bells culminate and cut through the mess in a trumpet-like fanfare, after which the piece collapses into a tragic death march (sotto voce).

One significant feature of Funérailles is Liszt’s remarkably daring pedal mark¬ings. One cannot begin to imagine what the melting together of those clashing, corrosive chords (another similarity with Gibet) into one large mass of sound must have sounded like to the unsuspecting audiences of the period. What sets the piece apart, however, is the expanding, seemingly unlimited space between each note and, more importantly, within the pauses. This opens up new dimensions to the sound world and breathes new meaning into the piece. All this flexibility laid over a static, hypnotic rhythm in the left hand possibly represents the greatest chal¬lenge. Although the central octave section is often timed with a stopwatch for speed comparisons, the impression of speed is entirely illusory: if the accu¬mula¬tion of ‘noise’ and the full brunt of the crashing octaves can be achieved through use of the pedal, voicing and colour, speed becomes of secondary importance.

Talking of stopwatches, there were two previous versions of what we know today as Liszt’s Études d’exécution transcendante. The first version dates from 1826 and was written by the not-yet-15-year-old Liszt, still under the influence of his teacher Carl Czerny. The second, from 1837, is an obscene collection of notes, and as Schumann noted, probably too difficult for anyone except Liszt. In the 1852 version, Liszt trimmed some of the technical excesses, while preserving the musical poetry and romantic nature. This is the version in which we know them today: by no means easy but much clearer in musical intent. Though the études should ideally be performed as a set, I feel that the two pieces chosen here provide a healthy bridge between the quiet sombreness of the Funérailles and the warmth of the passionate love radiating from the Petrarch sonnets. They are also among Liszt’s finest compositions. The great Étude in F minor is a stormy, passionate affair and Allegro agitato molto pretty much sums it up. Yet it offers many often overlooked magical mo¬ments of unexpected calm and lyricism. In its syncopated, breathless nature, as well as in notation, the opening theme is remarkably similar to that of Chopin’s own F minor study. Yet one must be careful with comparisons: Liszt’s original ver¬sion goes back to a time way before he had ever heard a note of Chopin.

The sound of distant bells in the beginning of Étude No.11, Harmonies du soir, is significantly warmer than the dissonant bells in Funérailles. The piece is like a mag¬nificent landscape painting first seen from afar, and then, as the observer gets closer, yielding glorious details. One should note that Liszt’s masterly handling of tonal ambiguity and impressionistic sonorities is in some ways even more daring than Ravel’s. The warm afterglow of the closing section provides a luscious link to the Tre Sonetti di Petrarca.

Liszt was not only a pioneer in many aspects of piano playing, but also one of the first great travellers. Accounts of his lengthy trips through Europe, around 1838–48 when he was at his peak as a performing virtuoso, even today present a tantalizing – and totally inaccurate – image of the life of a concert pianist. (Writing this at Chicago’s beehive airport, while my six-hour delayed connecting flight may or may not be cancelled, the only tantalizing thing is the Hawaiian location of my suitcase.) For the second of his three musical travelogues entitled Années de pèle¬rinage (Years of Pilgrimage), Liszt sought inspiration from the Italian masters of art and literature, such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Dante. The poet Francesco Petrarca (1304–74) inspired him to take three poems and set them to music as songs in 1846. Only later did he decide to transcribe the songs for solo piano, which, I think, takes the music to an even more expressive level. The first piano ver¬sion appeared in 1846 and the second, which is more commonly played, in 1858. Il Canzoniere (Song Book), originally titled Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (Frag¬ments of Vulgar Things – i.e. texts written in the vernacular instead of Latin), is probably Petrarch’s most notable work. In it, and over a time span of around 40 years, he finds ample opportunity for self-torture over his burning, unrequited pas¬sion for Laura, a woman he is said to have met only once, briefly. Yet as we read, we realize that Petrarch’s internal struggle may not have been about Laura at all, but rather the eternal conflict between flesh and soul –an unwinnable battle only too familiar to the womanizer Liszt (although for him lack of reciprocation was not an issue, with divorces being filed en masse whenever he appeared in town).

On closer inspection, Liszt’s piano version isn’t necessarily directly influenced by the text but rather conveys his emotions originating from the words, which he also copied into the piano score. All three sonetti are monothematic and nocturnal in style, with the imitation of Italian bel canto and its fluidity as one of the main properties, particularly in the first sonnet. (Liszt stated that the speed of perfor¬mance is much less important than its fluidity.)

In Sonnet 47 (Benedetto sia ’l giorno, e ’l mese, e l’anno/Blessed be the day, the month, the year), Petrarch praises his love, tears and suffering. The difficulty in Liszt’s solo piano version is to bring out the voice/melody with its full ex¬pres¬sive qualities while the syncopated accompaniment must remain a soft cushion of har¬mony which on the one hand cannot interfere with the melody yet should give it harmonic support throughout. Some of his most intimate and tender moments can be found in this sonnet (Sempre mosso con intimo sentimento), such as the pain, rhetorically expressed with a diminished chord followed by the descending ca¬denza (bars 58–59) which in the score of the song corresponds to a chromatic scale marked smorzando (dying) on the word ‘lagrime’ (tears). Some of the mod¬ula¬tions are absolutely novel for the time, yet not unusual for Liszt, such as the theme setting off in D flat major, travelling through various diminished chords and returning in G major.

There is some ambiguity, anguish and disdain to Petrarch’s feeling in Sonnet 104 (Pace non trovo/I find no peace), with a dose of self-flagellation as his desire begins to grow and eat away at him. We also get a paradox when he says ‘Veggio senz’occhi; e non ho lingua e grido’ [‘Eyeless I gaze, and tongueless I cry out’]. Liszt transmits this miraculously through the many abrupt changes in char¬acter and dynamics. We are also faced with virtuoso cadenzas in f, which do not occur in the other pieces (which have only one cadenza each – in pp as in Sonnet 47, or ppp as in Sonnet 123).

The first subject, molto espressivo, consists of repeated notes, creating a feeling of insistence and intensification (conversely, Scarbo and the Danse macabre use repeated notes to induce horror). In fact Liszt created many themes with repeated notes, and in the Sonnets these mirror the declamatory and vocal character of the pieces in a very distinctive fashion. The descending chromatic thirds in bar 44 are begging in nature – the song ver¬sion in fact has the repeated word cheggio (beg) here. Finally, the resolute coda – with its ascending, floating melody which is heard three times, each time intensifying in character – corresponds with the words ‘in questo stato son, donna, per voi’ [‘to this state I am come, my lady, be¬cause of you’].

In Sonnet 123 (I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi/I beheld on earth angelic grace), we have another paradox: Laura is being compared to a tender, gentle angel, yet her words are capable of ‘moving the mountains’ and ‘stay[ing] the rivers’. Liszt man¬ages to capture this celestial serenity and tenderness in an extraordinary way: by the amorphous nature of the speed (Lento placido), by expressive indications (dol¬cissimo, dolcemente) and by using a dy¬na¬mic range between p and ppp. This last sonnet is like a hallucinogenic, amorous dream: before anything is allowed to take shape, it evaporates again into ‘shad¬ows’ and ‘mists’, words that are repeat¬ed frequently in the song. The piece is absolutely spell-binding and creates a seam¬less transition into the darker world of Maurice Ravel’s misandric water-nymph On¬dine.

‘I wanted to write a more difficult piece than Islamey! I wanted to make a caricature of romanticism. Perhaps it got the better of me.’ Those were the words of Ravel after composing Scarbo. Ironically, and in total contrast to Liszt, Ravel himself was anything but a virtuoso – perhaps his reason for deciding to torture other pianists instead. The triptych of Gaspard de la Nuit (1908) is, like Liszt’s Petrarch sonnets, based on three poems, but of a much darker kind. The author, Aloysius Bertrand (1807–41), claimed that they were whispered to him in his sleep by the devil, and since then, the texts influenced an entire generation of symbolist writers. Given to poring through the nights over the works of the fan¬tas¬tical E.T.A. Hoffmann and the macabre Edgar Allan Poe, Ravel must have been affected by the similarly dark resonances of dream, magic and evil spells of Ber¬trand’s poems, all the more so as his father had become mortally ill. Gaspard marks the summit of Ravel’s output for solo piano and contains some of the most acrobatic and complex writing in the piano literature. Clearly, Liszt was looking over Ravel’s shoulder, and yet, like with a lot of Liszt’s music, to regard Gaspard purely as a virtuoso showpiece is to miss the point completely. In fact, as soon as one frees oneself from the concern about hitting its ungodly number of notes in the right places and starts thinking more in terms of colour, moods and shades, the work embraces you with open arms and becomes a life-long friend.

The iridescent Ondine, a malevolent water nymph singing to lure men into visiting her kingdom deep at the bottom of the lake, is wonderfully captured by Ravel, and the way he evokes the shimmering moonlight on the lake with a tongue-twister of a rhythm in the right hand (two bars of pianistic nightmare) is a stroke of genius. Even though the piece has all the necessary vocal properties (it is after all Ondine’s song), it is quite remote and cold in nature and cannot be over-romanticised (one mustn’t forget that she lacks a soul, until she bears a child of a human). There is a typically Ravelian gradual awakening until the climax hits, corresponding to the phrase: ‘And when I replied that I loved a mortal’. After On¬dine has shed a few tears in the right-hand solo comes her burst of laughter with a quicksilver cadenza, and a sudden disappearance.

Le Gibet (The Gallows) is 52 bars of torturous death through the tolling of the bell, a repeated B flat that is heard over 200 times at regular intervals. This mu¬sical horror story is of such textural density that most of the piece is notated on three staves. The deliberate absence of expression creates an unbearable hypnotic tension throughout, and any deviation in rhythm will destroy the whole build-up. Regarding the dynamic range, it remains between p and ppp yet, judging from his own recordings, Ravel did not always follow what he preached. Concluding the set, the devilish night-goblin Scarbo laughingly comes to horrify, and then dis¬ap¬pears without a trace. The piece is another nineteen pages of hallucinatory piano writing but curiously, compared with Ondine, it lies more comfortably under the hand. (However: to enable negotiation of the parallel-seconds passage before the re¬capitulation, it could help if one smashed up the thumbs to become double-joint¬ed, like Ravel.) The rapid repeated notes throughout (which are also an important part in the Danse macabre, though at much slower speeds), with wild flourishes and sudden shifts of texture, are supposed to horrify both the listener as well as the pianist. Ravel adds the words ‘Quelle horreur!’ to the theme after the introduction, just to make sure his message gets through, and in fact even the pauses are scary.

Continuing the theme of terror, Danse macabre (Dance of Death) is another piece of work inspired by a poem, this time written by the French symbolist Henri Cazalis (1840–1909). It is based on an old French superstition according to which Death appears at midnight on Halloween night and summons up the dead from their graves. They dance for him, rattling their bones collectively, while he plays his fiddle (‘zig and zig and zag’) until the ‘cock crows’ at dawn. Then they return to their graves, until next year.

The poem begs to be set to music and Camille Saint-Saëns did just that in 1872 when he composed a version for voice and piano. When singers complained and pronounced it ‘unsingable’, he expanded it into a tone poem for orchestra in 1874, replacing the voice by a solo violin. Since then, several other versions, arrange¬ments and transcriptions have emerged, and its catchy tune has also made it a popular soundtrack in movies and TV. Saint-Saëns’ work didn’t go unnoticed by the death-obsessed Liszt, who had composed his own Totentanz in the 1850s and who now made a great, yet fiendishly difficult, piano transcription. Less given to complaining than singers, pianists actually like their transcriptions with as much ink as possible and naturally Horowitz took things even further (too far, in my view) and added a number of additional notes to the already quite thick and rich texture, while cutting out some of the contrasting, lyrical stuff and the lighter, mercurial parts.

Horowitz was undoubtedly one of the greatest pianists that ever lived but Liszt was a better composer, and more notes don’t always equal better music. The version played here is a hybrid of the two with some minor liberties of my own, such as a small cut in the development section. That section works fine in the orchestral version, because of the imaginative use of various instruments, but doesn’t add much to the piano version. In fact I feel it holds the development of the piece back. The ending, after ‘the cock has crowed’ (which incidentally is the exact same figuration Saint-Saëns used for his cockerels in Le Carnaval des ani¬maux), was shortened for similar reasons.

© Yevgeny Sudbin 2012

Posted: Feb-1-2016
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