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Liszt the Vulgarian

available at Amazon
Liszt, B Minor Sonata, Après une Lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata, Hungarian Rhapsodies,
M. Suk

(released on December 8, 2009)

Online scores:
Works of Franz Liszt
This is turning out to be a year heavy on Romantic music, with both Chopin and Schumann's 200th birthdays providing the occasion for many concerts and new releases. Liszt, born in 1811, will likely have has turn next year, a bicentenary that Georgetown University and Post-Classical Ensemble decided to anticipate by a year with a conference this weekend called "Interpreting Liszt." While his music is actually played with some regularity, albeit many of the same pieces, Liszt does have a reputation with some listeners for vulgarity and empty virtuosity. Prof. Anna H. Celenza, the Chair of the Department of Performing Arts at Georgetown and a noted scholar of Liszt's music, continues with this conference to bring more of Liszt's music and greater knowledge of his compositional progression to light.

Ukrainian-American pianist Mykola Suk, winner of the 1971 International Liszt-Bartok Competition in Budapest, was then featured on two concerts of Liszt's music, only the second of which, on Saturday night at Georgetown's Gaston Hall, I was able to attend. Whatever his past accomplishments, in two of Liszt's more challenging warhorses Suk glided over too many of the technical demands (often clumsy octaves and elided right-hand runs) and wallowed too much in the most gelatinous rubato, dragging out all of the slow sections (you can listen to an MP3 file of Suk playing Liszt's B minor sonata). Joseph Horowitz, the artistic director of Post-Classical Ensemble, has waxed rapturous in print about Suk's way with Liszt, at least in part because Suk occasionally abandons the printed score and improvises, as Liszt and his students reportedly did with his music. If there was much improvisation on Saturday night, it was only in terms of tempo and rhythmic regularity.

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, Post-Classical Ensemble (Washington Post, February 15)

Andrew Lindemann Malone, Live at the Piano (DMV Classical, February 16)
In any case, if the point was to show Liszt as something other than a tasteless vulgarian, these were odd performances to call upon as proof. It was hard not to be disappointed in the technical shortcomings of Suk's B minor sonata, remembering it in far superior performances by Anna Vinnitskaya, Yuja Wang, Denis Matsuev, and Maurizio Pollini (to name but a few). The Totentanz, which delights in a Gothic-novel sort of theatricality, needs the daring of an interpreter like Jean-Yves Thibaudet, willing to indulge its over-the-top sense of fantasy. The instrumental ensemble, augmented by a number of ringers, played well, doing their best to keep up with Suk's somewhat unpredictable shifts in the Totentanz and giving an admirable lightness to the Hirtengesang an der Krippe section of Liszt's oratorio Christus. The Georgetown University Chamber Singers reinforced the general wisdom about Liszt's choral music, that much of it is eminently forgettable (Inno a Maria Vergine, not helped by the canned sound of a synthesized organ) but that there are a few jewels hidden in the catalogue (Ave verum corpus Christi [sic -- composed for the feast of Corpus Christi], S. 44, 1871).

1 comment:

Lindemann said...

I did eventually get my review up: