Wednesday, 6 April 2011


This year, the world celebrates the bicentenary of FRANZ LISZT (1811-1886). And what better way than to have an all-Liszt piano recital at Esplanade by one of the foremost authorities on the art of Romantic pianism, KENNETH HAMILTON (left)? The author of After The Golden Age will perform a programme of Liszt's piano music at Esplanade Recital Studio on Monday 18 April 2011. Included are the Sonata in B minor, Second Hungarian Rhapsody (with Hamilton's own cadenza), four Transcendental Études and the Singapore premiere of the little-known Berceuse. Ever eloquent and enthusiastic, Hamilton shares his thoughts on Liszt with Pianomania.

KENNETH HAMILTON is a Steinway artist.

We’ve just had the bicentenary celebrations of Chopin and Schumann in 2010, and are moving onto Franz Liszt’s this year. In your opinion, how does Liszt stand with respect to his famous (and arguably more popular) contemporaries?

Chopin’s quality control was higher than Liszt’s. Almost all of his music has a delicately balanced perfection that Liszt only occasionally achieved, which he did manage it in the Sonata in B minor, for example. On the other hand, Liszt’s range is much broader than Chopin’s, encompassing choral and orchestral as well as piano music. He also had what one might describe as a “healthy vulgarity” utterly alien to the sometimes over-refined world of Chopin. In terms of his hits and misses, Schumann is probably on a par with Liszt. There are few things in piano music more wonderful than his Fantasy in C major (Op.17), dedicated to Liszt, and few things more boring than pieces like Gesänge der Frühe (Op.133).

Liszt was an innovator. He created the solo piano recital as an ultimate platform for musical expression. He also created the symphonic poem. He also lived long enough to see his ideas passed on two further generations of composers. Would you say he was as influential (or more) as his son-in-law Richard Wagner?

They were influential in different ways, but probably of around equal importance for the future development of music. And let’s not forget that Wagner, by his own grudging admission, learned a lot from Liszt’s treatment of harmony. Liszt once wrote that his ambition was to “throw his lance into the future”, and he certainly did this, not just in his avant-garde late pieces, but with the musical techniques he developed in his Weimar symphonic poems. We might say that with these pieces, Liszt more or less invented film music long before films themselves were invented. And when you listen to early symphonic film music, by Korngold, for instance, you sometimes notice not just Liszt’s influence, but whole passages lifted from his symphonic poems. I remember watching the old Erroll Flynn film Captain Blood on TV one night, and being astonished to hear that Korngold had “borrowed” bits of Prometheus and Mazeppa, and shoved them straight into his score.

Liszt seemed a bundle of contradictions. His works combined the sublime and the vulgar. He was both saint and sinner. He was a playboy who became a priest. Can one actually pin him down?

No we can’t. And that’s why so much about Liszt seems endlessly fascinating. He himself was completely aware that his character oscillated awkwardly between the aesthetic and the indulgent. He would have preferred to have had more of the former and less of the latter, but ultimately he was powerless to do anything about it. At least he was completely sincere in both respects. Neither aspect was an act. His religious faith was genuine, even if his actual behaviour seemed to echo St.Augustine’s famous prayer, “O Lord, give me chastity, but not yet!”

Your Liszt commemorative recital showcases both original works and transcriptions. Was that what he usually programmed in his own solo recitals?

He played transcriptions far more frequently than original music in his public recitals, although in private he would often perform those original works that he thought showed his inspiration at its very best, such as the Sonata, or the Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude.(from Harmonies poetiques et religieuses). But then, during Liszt’s concert-giving heyday of the 1840s, most pianists tended to give programmes consisting largely of transcriptions. These were considered to be more attractive to the public, and to show off more effectively what the rapidly developing piano could actually do. Large-scale pieces like sonatas required far too much concentration from an audience. Far better to play an opera fantasy, or a Hungarian Rhapsody!

You have chosen to showcase the “Virtuoso Liszt” or the “Transcendental Liszt”, which is the singular facet most listeners are generally most comfortable with. Briefly, how did his technical wizardry transform Romantic piano writing?

Liszt was undoubtedly the greatest “recreator” of orchestral effects on the piano. He did invent a few new techniques of his own, such as “blind” octaves - alternating chromatic octaves between the hands, which he first used in his Fantasy on Halevy’s opera La Juive of 1835. But his main contribution was to unite what had usually been seen as specialities of individual pianists - the wide-ranging left hand technique of Henselt, the circus-trick leaps of Henri Herz, the “three-handed” style of Thalberg, the stentorian octaves and chords of Dreyschock, the filigree writing of Field and Chopin - into a complete whole. In doing this he effectively created modern pianism. And of course, his sensitivity to colour and sonority was unsurpassed. Even in pieces that are otherwise pretty flimsy, the piano writing is usually astonishingly imaginative.

You have decided to write your own cadenza ad libitum for the Second Hungarian Rhapsody, a tradition practised in the past and by great pianists like Rachmaninov. Could you shed some light on this?

Pianists of Liszt’s era often introduced their own improvisations and variants into concert performances. It was simply expected that any decent player would be able to do so. And the gap for the cadenza in the Second Rhapsody is a direct invitation. Liszt himself sketched out one or two possible cadenzas for students to use - only those students, that is, who felt uncomfortable creating their own - but he was absolutely thrilled when he heard his pupil Eugen d’Albert play his own elaborate cadenza. In fact, Vladimir Horowitz’s well-known reworking of the Second Rhapsody adopts a few ideas from d’Albert’s cadenza. I did at one point think of performing d’Albert’s cadenza myself, but it’s far more in the spirit of the piece to compose one’s own. I’ve cobbled together a couple of novel thematic combinations that I hope will fit the bill!

One would also not want to neglect the “Spiritual Liszt”, the “Revolutionary Liszt” or the “Visionary Liszt”. He was so multi-faceted a composer. Which of these appeals to you most?

I think it’s the very fact that there are so many facets of Liszt that ultimately appeals to me. It’s sometimes difficult to believe that the composer of Reminiscences de Robert le Diable could be the same man who wrote the profound Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, or that the creator of the Faust Symphony could also have produced such utter drivel as the Grand Galop Chromatique. But he did, and therein lies the fascination. And as Wagner said, even when Liszt was writing drivel, it was at least always interesting drivel.

Now for some trivia. Are there any pieces by Liszt which you consider too impossibly vulgar to appear in any of your recital programmes?

There is a point where a piece becomes so bad that it’s almost good, and I do think the above mentioned Grand Galop Chromatique falls into that category. What’s more, it was amazingly popular with audiences in Liszt’s day. But as a pianist who has sometimes played Horowitz’s outrageously over-the-top arrangement of The Stars and Stripes Forever, I reckon I’ve forever lost the right to complain about vulgarity!

If Liszt’s greatness could be encapsulated in just five works (for piano and otherwise), what would these five works be?

My list would be: the Sonata in B minor, the absolutely entrancing song Die Lorelei, the Faust Symphony, Psalm 13, and the Stabat Mater Dolorosa from the oratorio Christus.

Would you like to recommend some recordings of Liszt’s music to die for?

Sir Thomas Beecham’s magnificent, pioneering recordings of the Faust Symphony and Psalm 13 come immediately to mind. Moriz Rosenthal’s magical treatment of the Chopin-Liszt Meine Freuden is quite unforgettable, as is Paderewski’s La Leggierezza. There are so many recordings of the Sonata that it would be stupid to make any single choice, but certainly Horowitz’s and Cortot’s should be on anyone’s list, as should Stephen Hough’s strikingly imaginative rendition. Steven Osborne’s recording of the Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses perfectly captures Liszt’s spiritual side, as does Leslie Howard’s utterly sincere and moving interpretation of the Weinen, Klagen Variations. But of course there are many fine discs out there, spanning virtually the entire history of recording - and giving the lie to the idea that Liszt was ever really a “neglected” composer.

KENNETH HAMILTON was interviewed by PianoManiac.

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