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Liszt at 200

(Liszt Google doodle)

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Alan Walker, Franz Liszt, 3 vols.

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Liszt, Années de pèlerinage,
Louis Lortie
Liszt Ferenc was born 200 years ago, on October 22, 1811. Sadly, in today's performing world he is generally represented by a disappointingly slender selection of his compositions. Did Liszt write some vulgar pieces? Yes. Was he a vulgarian or nothing but a flashy-trash virtuoso? Far from it. Alan Walker, whose three-volume Odyssey of a biography is essential reading on the subject, reminds us of so many reasons why Liszt was such an extraordinary figure in 19th-century music. With his youthful career as a touring virtuoso, he had radically altered the way that the piano was played, so much so that if he died when he was 36, as Walker put it, "the title of 'the first modern pianist' could not have been withheld from him. He had become, in the memorable phrase of Saint-Saëns, 'the incontestable incarnation of the modern piano'."

"And then," Walker adds, "Liszt simply walked away from it all." His style of performing left so many marks on the way we still experience piano recitals: playing in profile, playing from memory, his advocacy for the late sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert, his belief in new trends in composition. His decision to abandon the fame and wealth of his concert career was, in part, simply self-preservation. Walker notes that Liszt had reached a point of exponential growth, with each performance on a tour leading to a dozen requests for others. Liszt knew that "the moment had come for him to get out or be destroyed in the process." Audiences never forgave him for abandoning them: as Walker observed, the public "punished him by refusing to take his music seriously." Regrettably, that trend continues today.

For some Liszt to appreciate, we recommend the Liszt festival at the Library of Congress, which opened in spectacular style on Wednesday with a recital by Canadian pianist Louis Lortie. If you missed Lortie's concert, his complete recording of Liszt's Années de pèlerinage, on the Chandos label, is the next best thing. Some other laudable recent Liszt recordings include those by Evgeny Kissin, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and Nelson Freire.

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