A passage from Liszt's Transcendental Etudes (No. 4
"Mazeppa"), 1837 version showing simplified performance
suggestions by Ferruccio Busoni.
Like many of the passages in his piano pieces, my relationship with the
music of Franz Liszt had a rather turbulent beginning. Coming from what
was then a Baroque and Classical era background I considered the Liszt
works that I first came upon to be formless and rather bombastic — what
we would call today "too over the top." Really just beginning to learn
about music at that point I nevertheless stuck with it and tried to make
it through Liszt's essential works. If there's one thing about me it is that
I have rarely in life tackled things halfway. And after reading Charles
Rosen's seminal book The Classical Style I came to look at things a little
differently. I began to see how the formal and harmonic language of the
Classical period had been extended and expanded by the Romantic Era —
but not overturned. And eventually not only did I come to appreciate and
even love Liszt, but I soon found it difficult, as my knowledge grew, to
imagine the works of Mahler, Strauss, and Schoenberg without there first
having been Franz Liszt. Could there have been a Verklarte Nacht without
there first having been a "Harmonies de Soir"? I will leave that an open
My favorite Liszt work in those early days was his Douze Études d'Exécution
Transcendante, normally just called the Transcendental Etudes or the TE's
(which I will use below). My first recording of the TE's was a recording
by Jorge Bolet. I had bought the Bolet recording pretty much by association
— Bolet had some sort of vague association with Indiana University where
I went to school. But I didn't much like the recording. And so a few months
later I bought another disk of the TE's by Lazar Berman. This one was better,
very strong from the technical side. Not too long after that I was in a record
store flipping through albums when I found a recording of the TE's with Russell
Sherman, then a faculty member at the New England Conservatory and not very
well known. I decided to take a chance and bought it. The Sherman version
finally satisfied me. He certainly had the technique enough. But more, he seemed
to have a way of giving chordal harmonies an almost contrapuntal sound through
bringing out inner voices. And so I now had three recordings of the TE's. Which
I have to say was very unusual for me — I didn't have the money back then to
indulge in multiple recordings of the same work. I left that tendency to my
Decades passed. My vinyl record collection gave way to cassettes and
eventually CDs. Things went up and down and back and forth as things
tend to do. And then, a few months ago, I came upon Liszt's transcription
of Schubert's Schwanengesang performed by Valentina Lisitsa. And suddenly,
like a torrential stream running through the forests of Weimar, my interest
in Liszt was reawakened.
Of course the first work I thought of was the TE's. And after a bit of
exploring I discovered a copy of Sherman's recording, a reissue of the
same one that I had loved in the 70s. But before I was able to order the
disk I did a bit of research. And with the full power of the internet
available to me as it was not in decades past, I learned a few new
things about the TE's.
Liszt in fact wrote three versions of the TE's. The first was an early
one from 1826 (S. 136). Then, a second and much more difficult version
was written in 1837 (S. 137), a version which gives pianists waking
nightmares. Finally a more simplified set was issued in 1852 (S. 139).
This version was dedicated to Liszt's teacher Carl Czerny (a pupil of
Beethoven). This version leaves out some major difficulties such as hand
stretches greater than a major 10th. It does however boast an expanded
and ironically more difficult version of No. 4 "Mazeppa."
It is the S. 139 that is commonly played by pianists today — either out
of personal preference or simply because they can't play the difficult
S. 137 version. One pianist who has recorded the 1837 version is Leslie
Howard, who has been going through Liszt's entire catalog over the
years. Curious, I decided to pass over the Sherman version (which is the
1852 version) and go for Howard on the earlier version.
Unfortunately I didn't do my research well enough. Seeing the title on
the album cover, and knowing that Howard had recorded the S. 137, I
simply ordered the CD without much thought and without reading the
entire description. But as it turns out Howard has recorded both the S.
137 and the S. 139. And I had bought the wrong one, of course. Having
other works to go through on my limited funds I will put off getting
S. 137 for a few months.
Next year marks the bi-centennial of the birth of Franz Liszt. As such
there will undoubtedly be many concerts and recitals scheduled
featuring his works — especially in Europe. Here in Spokane there is
nothing currently on the schedule, but I emailed the director of the
Spokane Symphony suggesting that they could do a "Franz Liszt Night"
next Fall. Nothing will probably come of it — but who knows. I imagine
that other artists will jump on board for the anniversary. Khatia
Buniatishvili, a promising young pianist, will issue an all-Liszt
recording on Sony next Spring.
The big question, of course, is Valentina Lisitsa. Given her skills it
is impossible for me to think of Liszt without thinking of Lisitsa.
She has recorded Liszt on her early CDs, which are now unfortunately
out of print. As far as what is currently available, she has included
three nice Liszt pieces on her DVD Black and Pink. But it is my hope
that to mark the Anniversary Year that Lisitsa will put out a new,
all-Liszt video. I would love to hear her do a new version of the B minor
Sonata S. 178. And I think it would be great to hear her play Liszt's
piano version of his symphonic poem Les Preludes — a beautiful and
at times brain-cell rearranging transcription (S. 511a, in case you are
curious). But I am sure that Lisitsa knows the Liszt catalog better than
I ever will. I am sure she could find many great pieces to play.
I would hope for that — but am not expecting it. I really do need to
get that magic lamp of mine to working.
There may not be much passion residing in my soul these days. But what
there is Liszt certainly seems to be awakening. So I will flow with that
for a while. And I will let the harmonies of his works carry me — somewhere
— anywhere — who knows, it really is all wonderful.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886).