Magazine article The Spectator

Hit Liszt

Magazine article The Spectator

Hit Liszt

Article excerpt

Damian Thompson highlights the gems among the prolific and pilloried composer's nine million notes

The extraordinary thing about Franz Liszt is that he remains one of the most famous composers of the 19th century despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of his music is forgotten - and likely to stay forgotten.

He wrote enough of it, that's for sure.

If you were to listen to his works one after another without interruption, it would take about a week. I'm basing that estimate on the fact that Leslie Howard's 98 CDs of Liszt's complete piano music, which are just about to be reissued by Hyperion, last for just over five days. That's nine million notes spread over 12 miles of printed pages, in case you were wondering. Add the orchestral and sacred music and you'd have about 120 CDs.

But, even though 2011 is Liszt's bicentenary year, there was never any danger of Radio 3 giving us 'Liszt Week'. Even his fervent champions - who are always telling us that he beat Wagner to the Tristan chord, reinvented symphonic form, anticipated Schoenberg in his frighteningly spare last piano style, etc. - might blanch at the prospect of wall-to-wall Liszt. (Radio 3 announcer: 'And that was the Marche pour le Sultan Abdul Medjid-Khan. Next, the Tarantella d'apres la Tarantelle de "la Muette de Portici" d'Auber.') How much of Liszt's music shows him at or near his best? Let's suppose that you own 120 CDs of his entire output. As part of a spring-clean, you decide to keep only those pieces that, according to received wisdom, reveal a truly satisfying creative artist. What would you hang on to? The obvious candidates are the Faust symphony, the odd tone poem, the piano concertos, a sprinkling of Hungarian Rhapsodies and Transcendental Etudes, most of the Annees de Pelerinage, the Legends, some of those late spectral jottings, the variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen - and, towering above everything, the B minor Piano Sonata. Those pieces would take up roughly five CDs. So you'd need a suitcase to carry your discarded Liszt to the Oxfam shop.

But what if you were really ruthless and kept only music judged to be worthy of comparison with the peaks of the romantic repertoire, such as Schumann's Fantasy in C or the Chopin Ballades? In that case, as they say on Building a Library, it's time to say goodbye to Faust, the concertos, the tone poems and many shorter piano pieces.

A double album consisting of the sonata and the very finest solo piano works would convey the essence of Liszt's inspiration as it's usually understood. About 2 per cent of his output, in other words.

Now let's indulge in a little alternative history and imagine that the B minor Sonata has just been unearthed in a German library and is the only trace of Franz Liszt. The world would immediately recognise the greatest piano sonata composed since the death of Schubert. People would ask: what other masterworks by this towering figure remain to be discovered? Surely such a man was capable of changing musical history, not with haphazard experiments in form and tonality, but with 'proper' symphonies and sonatas of Beethovenian stature. Given what Alfred Brendel calls the 'total control of large form' and 'blend of deliberation and white heat' in the B minor Sonata, what other wonders might this Liszt have worked? …

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