The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Saturday is the 200th birthday of Franz Liszt. You can celebrate by playing or listening to the piano, by reading Anthony Tommasini and Alex Ross and even going to see an HD broadcast of Lang-Lang

October 21, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday, Oct. 22, marks the 200th birthday of the supreme piano virtuoso, the prolific composer and the generous teacher Franz Liszt (below, in a photo from his later years).

Fans of this blog know that I am not a fan of Liszt the composer. He did some fine and even inspired or visionary work, but too often he seemed taken in by showmanship and his writing seems second-rate. (I do except the two piano concertos, the B minor sonata, the Petrarch Sonnets and some of his later works, especially the tone poems and some of the pieces in “Years of Pilgrimage.” But, oh, those Transcendental Etudes, which can be transcendental bores to learn or to listen to!)

I know many people, including many music experts and pianists, disagree. But he was no Chopin or Schumann, to name two of his contemporaries.

Perhaps the fairest assessment of Liszt I have seen comes from the New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini (below top). He wrote that Liszt was at his greatest as an overall musician, not simply as a pianist who, along with Chopin, revolutionized piano technique, or as a composer, who has a handful of masterpieces to his credit.

You can read it for yourself. I find it enlightening and hope you do too. It seems a good birthday “card” to send out to readers.

You can also Goggle Franz Liszt 200th birthday and read a lot more about Liszt, his birthday and current celebrations of it.

One of the best you will find focuses on the boatload of recording that the Liszt Bicentennial has spawned. The renowned New Yorker magazine critic Alex Ross (below) briefly reviews many of them, though not the prolific Leslie Howard’s complete and hefty box of Liszt’s work for solo piano.

For my money and taste, Ross is right on the mark, especially in his praise of the modest pieces and CD of Nelson Freire who is a thorough virtuoso capable of playing anything Liszt composed but instead chooses some unusual repertoire.

Here is a link to Ross’ Liszt list and his tart and terse reviews:

Finally, if you want to hear Liszt played by someone who represents the showier, more glittery and even trashy side of Liszt, you might try the satellite-beamed concert by phenom Lang-Lang (below). True, he is dismissively nicknamed Bang Bang or L2 (“L-squared”) but he remains supremely popular, and he has out his own CD of Liszt to mark the occasion.

Like the Met Live in HD and the LA Phil Live in HD series, Lang-Lang’s concert (with Charles Dutoit leading the Philadelphia Orchestra)  will be screened on Saturday night at 7 p.m. with an encore on Monday night at 7:30 p.m. at the same theaters that carry the Met and LA Phil broadcasts. (In Madison, that means the Point Cinemas, below, on the west side of town, and Eastgate Cinemas on the east side.)

Admission is $18. I can’t find a specific program, but maybe you can. I’m sure it will feature works from his new CD, such as the Piano Concerto No. 1, and will also include a lot of double octaves and pyrotechnics. I’m sure it will be calculated tor thrill you and will succeed in that goal.

How will The Ear mark the 200th birthday of Franz Liszt (below, in a photo by Pierre Petit)?

Not by playing the any of his works.

But I may just listen to the Sonata in B minor or the Piano Concerto No. 2, which is underplayed and under-programmed.

What will you do to mark the 200th birthday of Liszt?

What are your most favorite and least favorite of Liszt’s pieces?

What will you do to mark Liszt’s 200th birthday?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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