Franz Liszts Piano Works

(Booklet text of CD "Erik Reischl play Liszt")

The trilogy "Année de Pèlerinage" has a protracted origin which is typical for the creative process of the composer.

Liszt composed a series of pieces in the years he spent in Switzerland, together with Duchess Marie d’Agoult and each was published separately in the following years. In 1842 they appeared as an "Album d’un voyaguer". Liszt had rearranged many of these pieces, nine of which were published in 1855 by the Schott Verlag as "Année de Pèlerinage" with the sub-title "Switzerland".

Three years later a second book appeared in which Liszt arranged impressions of his travels in Italy. The third part of the "Année de Pèlerinage"contains mostly religious works from the period in Rome, where he took the vows of the lower order of an abbé.

Liszt wrote "Les Cloches de Genève" – (The Bells of Geneva) at the birth of his first child, Blanche, in December 1835. The composition forms a link between the chimes of a bell and a lullaby. Liszt closes the cycle "Switzerland" with the low tolling of bells in the distance.

On the opera paraphrases, the Liszt biographer, Everett Helm, noted in 1829,

"Liszt wrote innumerable pieces, beginning with the Fantasy on Auber’s opera "La Fiancee" in 1829, through to his "Réminiscences de Boccanegra" (Verdi) in 1882, that varied a great deal in quality. Certainly they contained trivialities and vulgarities, but they were on average, better than their reputation. Most were composed as brilliant or entertaining recital pieces, which is what the public demanded. Liszt himself had played them in a manner which one would today, not wish to imagine, just as one cannot today, perceive the taste of that period."

The paraphrases remain to the present day in the crossfire of critics in much the same way as the Hungarian Rhaposdies. The object of dissapproval is the thoughtless treatment of the allegedly "stolen" material.

The Rigoletto paraphrase from 1851 could most probably be exempt from this criticism. The reason being the amazing competence with which Liszt portrays the different characteristics of this choral quartet. The passionate duke in revelling legato canticle; the daring gypsy with cheeky staccato passages; the betrayed and desperate Gilda and finally her revenge seeking father.

This brilliant work has justifiably gained a secure position in pianists‘ repertories and on the concert podium.

Liszt, in his lifetime, wrote several hundred transcriptions of choral works, many of which he played at his own recitals. Most were Schubert transcriptions, but also from Schumann, Chopin, Beethoven and even transcriptions from his own works are to be found. Sometimes Liszt only arrranged the vocal part into the existing piano accompaniment. Now and then by intentional enrichment, he achieved a completely new sound.

The piano arrangement of the Loreley from 1861 is based on a song that Liszt had composed 20 years before. The famous poem from Heinrich Heine tells the legend of the virgin with golden hair who’s wonderful singing enraptures the boatsmen on the Rhine river. As they look up to the heights, they are dashed to pieces on the rocks.

In contrast to the well known folk song, Liszt composed each verse differently according to it‘s content. The perspective of the narrator at the beginning and the end of the piece is kept recitative, the legend itself changes in it’s expressive content from a lulling melody to dramatic outbreaks.

The Dance of the Gnomes, is one of two concert etudes which Liszt wrote in 1862 for the piano school of Lebert and Starck. The name on the one hand, already gives away it’s destiny as being intended for public performance, "Concert Etude – Dance of the Gnomes" and yet on the other, the programmatic content dominates. Consequently both the " Dance of the Gnomes and "Waldesrauschen" - "Rustle of the Woods" come close to the form of a virtuose character piece.

"La Campanella" – (the bell), belongs to one of the most popular of Liszt’s works. It is one of the six "Great Etudes from Paganini" which appeared in 1851. Five of these etudes are transcriptions from Paganini’s solo caprices op. 1. The "Campanella" though, is the theme taken from the rondo in the 2nd violin concerto.

As with the "Etudes d’exécution transcendentale", an earlier version exists, which despite (or perhaps because) of it‘s extreme difficulties, sounds rather scant.

In comparison, the 1851 version proves to be considerably more refined.

Frugal method paired with revolutionary innovations – mainly in the field of harmony, is indicative of Liszt‘s late works. Most of the pieces are kept short and are exceedingly expressive. In complete contrast to works from his early and middle period, virtuosity and effects are no longer important. According to his own words, it was rather a case of the old abbé Liszt, " throwing his spear into the infinite space of the future".

The nocturne "Schlaflos, Frage und Antwort" – ("Sleepless, Question and Answer"), is based on a poem by Toni (Antonia) Raab, a student of Liszt’s. Unfortunately the poem has been lost, however it is less the content, but rather the title which is the subject of the piece. The agitated arpeggios of the left hand represent the restlessness which is backed by an insistent and ambiguous harmony. Following the singly desclaimed "Frage" (question) comes a clearly defined and harmonically unmistakable "Antwort", (answer)".

"Nuages gris" – (gloomy clouds) is, due to it‘s whole tone harmonics, a milestone in piano literature. The gloomy atmosphere of the piece already anticipates the impressionism of Debussy or Ravel. It has become known mainly because of the two open chords at the end which remind one of Scriabin’s harmonies.

Sospiri! -(sighs) is the last of five piano pieces from 1879. Apart from the name there is little similarity with the "Etude de Concert" of the same name. Again the open finish in the form of a diminished seventh chord leaves a strange feeling.

At the beginning of the 20th century Schönberg pleaded for the "emanzipation of dissonance" and with that made way for free atonality. "Atonal" does not necessarily mean an increase of dissonance, but first of all "without a key" and the Bagatelle without Tonality from 1885 is to be understood in this sense. The harmonies of this bizarre work are arranged in such a way so that a key cannot even be recognised in sections. Originally the composition was composed as the 4th Mephisto Waltz. However Liszt changed the title and wrote a further "Mephisto Waltz" which remained unfinished.

Although Liszt never commented on the theme of the Ballade no. 2 in B minor it cannot be overheard that he was inspired by the Greek myth of Hero and Leander.

The introductory main theme with the ascending and decending chromatic runs symbolises Leander who every evening swims across the Hellespont in order to visit his secret lover, the woman priest, Hero. On the third night Leander makes it, despite the waves breaking higher and higher. In the storm of the fourth night, however, he can no longer withstand the forces of nature and drowns. The stylised knell sounds at the end and here Hero realises that she has lost Leander. She throws herself into the sea and so, once again, becomes one with her lover.

(Erik Reischl, Translation Elisabeth Ann Krüger)