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Liszt the Admirer

March 25, 2008

Thunder and lightning flashed from the piano in Herbst Theatre last Tuesday night as Canadian virtuoso Louis Lortie presented a sort-of-Liszt program, under the auspices of San Francisco Performances. Actually, most of the evening was built around Franz Liszt's great admiration for Wagner. Transcriptions abounded, because of some last-minute programming shuffling.
Lortie opened with a piano version of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, as transcribed by Wagner's assistant Joseph Rubinstein. That was followed by two pieces that Liszt wrote as memorials to Wagner: La lugubre Gondola II and RW–Venezia. The first half of the program closed with a number unrelated to Wagner: Vallée d'Obermann.

The second half consisted of Liszt's Wagner transcriptions: the "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde, plus the "Evening Star" aria and Overture from Tannhäuser. (Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1, which had been on the program, was dropped in favor of the Obermann piece — a tactical mistake, if you ask me.)

Liszt's one frustration in life was that he never managed to write an opera equal to those of his friends Berlioz and Wagner. There is only the one Liszt opera, Don Sanche, written in his midteens while a student in Vienna. Although he aspired to write epics, and planned for eight of them, none was completed. Those included subjects such as The Divine Comedy, Faust, Spartacus, and Joan of Arc. He had to settle for A Faust Symphony — a grand work whose opening theme was the first 12-toned tune.
Passion for Grand Opera
Liszt satisfied his operatic passions, instead, by writing opera transcriptions and not a few rhapsody-fantasies on famous operas by other composers. But even here, Liszt managed to achieve magical touches of inventiveness. Tuesday's program largely illustrated that point. The Tannhäuser excerpts are brilliantly pianistic, which would not seem obvious.

By contrast, the Tristan finale didn't work on the piano, and can't. Its texture depends too much on sustained, long threads of lyricism, whereas the very nature of a piano note is that it begins to die off immediately after being struck. The "Liebestod" when played on the piano ends up sounding a tad silly, like someone wearing clothes of the wrong size.

On the other hand, Siegfried Idyll sounded as if it were written originally for that instrument. Part of that effect lay in Russian pianist Joseph Rubinstein's adaptation. Rubinstein (1847-84) had been Wagner's assistant for ages, even helping in the building of Bayreuth and launching Wagner's full Ring cycle. Wagner, of course, died in Venice in 1883, followed shortly by Liszt's three elegies on the subject. They're quite beautiful, in a grim sort of way, and written with obvious devotion. There is no hit of flashiness in them, but instead an almost religious zeal.

In addition to the two that Lortie played, there is an even more gaunt one, also from 1883, titled Am Grabe Richard Wagner (At Richard Wagner's grave). It, too, contains 12-tone implications in one long recitative for harp and string quartet. (Liszt then rearranged it for piano.) Neither version has found favor with performers.
The one sour note of the evening, a work more favored by virtuoso pianists than most audiences, was Vallée d'Obermann, from the first book of Années de Pèlerinage (Years of pilgrimage), pieces based on Swiss subjects. The Obermann piece is full of bluster and bombastically bristles with technical fireworks. It's the kind of piece in which you end up admiring the facility of the performer, if not the shallowness of the score.

On the lighter side, Gondoliera (1859) is an arrangement of an actual, and quite pretty, gondoliers' barcarolle that Liszt heard when in Venice. It laps along its aquatic way spreading Italian charm in its wake. It was a nice bit of relief after those two laments on Wagner's death.

Lortie's performances were keen as a whip, both in his poetic lyricism and invincible coloration, and in his overpowering dynamics at flank speed. Had he stopped short during one of those mad Lisztian keyboard gallops, I suspect he'd have left skid marks on the keys. Behind the pyrotechnics, as well as Lortie's intellectual musicianship, lay a keen feeling for which music needed a bit of rubato, as opposed to which needed to move along without his stopping to smell the roses. Those are judgment calls that pianists rarely encounter, made right on the button.

My one complaint would be against Lortie's opening his recital with a 15-minute music appreciation chat. He accomplished this with informal grace, but took too long, as the audience just wanted to hear him play.

Audience enthusiasm, however, was volcanic after the concluding Tannhäuser Overture. Lortie responded with two sensationally played encores: Debussy's L'Isle joyeuse (The joyous isle) and Liszt's concert etude Un sospiro (A sigh).

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.