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EXPLORING MUSIC :"The Sound is Everything"

The MHS Review 375 Vol. 10, No. 15 • 1986

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Frank Cooper


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The centenary of Franz Liszt's death is bringing listeners into greater contact with the 19th century's most quintessentially romantic career. Festive performances of large quantities of Liszt's music in Washington, New York, Miami, and other cities ( often carried over the radio), and recordings, books and articles make him less a creature of the movies Song without End and Lisztomania and more the real man who inspired the legend. In his 74 years from 1811 to 1886, Liszt lived enough for several lifetimes. He raised the art of piano playing to unheard-of heights, composed revolutionary music (which inspired other composers of his day and anticipated the future music of such men as Debussy, Bartok, Ives, Ravel, and Busoni in the early 20th century), and championed neglected composers by performing their scores himself and by recommending them widely. His treatment of Franz Schubert was particularly laudable.

Few were those who cared about Schubert's music either during his tragic life or in the years after. No theaters produced his operas, no conductors led his symphonies, no singers sang his songs. But in 1838 (ten years after Schubert's death), Liszt appeared in Vienna for a series of recitals, and included groups of song transcription after Schubert in each. Two kinds of magic, Liszt's genius in transferring to the solo piano the very essence of Schubert's originals, and his charisma as the greatest pianist alive, made them overnight successes. As fast as they were printed, the public bough them. Eventually, in response to such avid reception, Liszt made a total of 56 such pieces.

Alan Walker, author of the most thoroughly research ·d book yet written about Liszt (Franz Liszt, The Virtuoso Years, New York, Knopf, 1983) observes a triple purpose in these works: first, they promoted the name of Schubert, still little known outside Vienna; second, they advanced the field of piano technique, posing special problems of layout and timbre which had never before been solved; third, they widened Liszt's own repertoire. On Schubert's behalf, Liszt went even further, performing and publishing his own editions of the Wanderer Fantasy and some of the sonatas. As a result, singers, conductors, and chamber musicians internationally were attracted for the first time to Schubert, and his works entered the active repertoire (to remain there ever since).

Today, the tables of history having turned and the bulk of Schubert's original music being known and well-established in our inner ears, the Liszt song transcriptions (which brought Schubert to public attention once and for all) lie neglected on library shelves. To rectify this situation, Britain's John Bingham has joined such virtuosi as Jorge Bolet and Lazar Berman in recording a judicious sampling of these remarkable pieces.

The ten chosen here are based on as many of Schubert's most admired songs. The most restrained settings are those of The Miller and the Brook, The Double, and The Erl-King, in which we hear Schubert at his purest. Liszt's miracle is to incorporate th vocal line and the accompaniment together so that nothing is lost and all coheres. Next come The Pigeon Post (Schubert's very last song), Restless Love, The Maidens Lament, and Passing-Bell, in which Liszt gives freer rein to his decorative impulses. Harmonies are enhanced and technique increased without losing sight of Schubert's originals. Then there are radiantly original, nearly alchemical transformations of The Linden Tree, The Trout, and Hark, Hark, the Lark, which must be experienced by who really love intricate pianism. Words fail here. The sound is everything.

Review of Songs by Franz Schubert: Arranged for Piano by Franz Liszt

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