liszt-2011The Twilight of Liszt

Ferenc Liszt, the superstar, a man of the world, idolised by women, ambassador of freedom, who revolutionised piano technique, the first true ‘European’...
An never-ending series of descriptives could follow Liszt’s name – but even all of them combined cannot express sufficiently faithfully the dazzling personality and influence that is just as vivid and decisive even 200 years after his birth.
To be born as a Hungarian pianist means one speaks the musical mother tongue of Liszt and Bartók, which from the first steps in learning music is gradually incorporated into one’s cells and slowly becomes vital for one’s existence. My relationship with Liszt’s works is lifelong, true love, and if from time to time I venture into other musical fields, the return is always sweet, because I need Liszt like bread and butter.
Naturally a beginner pianist selects pieces on an emotional basis, and it does no harm if the piece is mighty difficult and showy (O, youth – folly!), so for years I overlooked the treasure of music Liszt’s last six years of life and work left to us. A few years ago I had to learn the Hungarian Rhapsody no. 19 and the Csárdás macabre for a commission. I was taken aback by how different this world was to the Liszt I had known; it frightened me, I was shocked by its gravity, but as with everything that strikes fear into one, it also attracted me. It is black music. I was not mature enough for it – I needed lots of notes, a cavalcade of colour, romance, poetry, in other words, the young, fiery Liszt.
This came completely unexpectedly, a kind of ‘back to the future’. When I felt truly at home in Bartók’s music, then I put aside by doubts and fears about the elderly Liszt’s depressing musical confession. Suddenly I was gripped by the sense that some pieces would open the seventh door of Bluebeard’s castle.
In spite of his fast deteriorating health, the elderly Liszt remained extremely productive (how unfair of fate that many tortuous illnesses would be completely curable by modern medicine). Of the countless pieces, this selection includes those which mean something important to me.
At first sight it might seem odd to find the last four Hungarian Rhapsodies here, but these pieces were written in this period. Their mood is very similar to that of the csárdás and quite unlike the grandiosity of the first fifteen rhapsodies. There are far fewer virtuoso elements – as if Liszt no longer wants to decorate the melody, but to sour it.
Alongside the sombre Hungarian pieces (rhapsodies and csárdás) the Valses oubliées and the Romance oubliée have a rather nostalgic effect. We hear the caricature of a world that has gone, with a wan smile.
The third group includes the pieces of the character of a dirge (La lugubre gondola nos. 1 and 2, Unstern, and Nuages gris). Liszt seems to converse with death, and in it we hear darkness, freezing coldness and fear. It is as if he knew in advance in what undignified circumstances he would have to pass away. We find respite only in the piece En rêve, where the dream finally brings light and hope, perhaps in the world beyond.
‘The Twilight of Liszt’ is a bridge. A bridge between the Romantic and modern music, the path leading to Béla Bartók.

Translated by Richard Robinson

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