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A Spellbinding Liszt Cycle

July 24, 2007

Time was when piano recitals would end with a rousing performance of a Hungarian rhapsody, an etude, or the Mephisto Waltz by Franz Liszt as a surefire way to bring the audience to its feet. Christopher Taylor, who last year in Berkeley played all three books of etudes by another Hungarian, Györgi Ligeti, once again put himself to the test, this time in the Napa Valley Opera House last Thursday, playing all 12 of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies at the Festival del Sole.
As if playing them all in one go on the first half of a (noontime) concert wasn’t enough for the audience to get the "transcendent" message, Taylor added Beethoven’s last piano sonata, which takes piano playing to regions that had never been reached before, or, some might say, since.

As a pupil of Carl Czerny, Liszt met and played for Beethoven — Czerny’s teacher — at the tender age of 11. Small wonder, then, that a few years later he would be inspired to dedicate his first set of studies to Czerny, no mean purveyor of piano studies himself. And the early version of the Liszt etudes certainly resemble Czerny more than they do Beethoven.

In their original form they were playable by amateurs of his day. Now, along with Chopin, Ligeti, and many others, they form the basis of modern piano technique. This doesn’t make them easier to play, but they do show how thoroughly Liszt equipped his technical arsenal and laid out the storming octaves, rapid double notes, and exquisite filigree passages that would form the basis of his piano music until he abandoned it all for the spare style of his old age. For us they are, in addition to their pedagogical purposes, fascinating glimpses into Liszt’s development as a virtuoso, perhaps to the detriment to his gifts as a composer.

By playing them as a set, Taylor clearly revealed the merits of the etudes performed in toto as a cycle. The titles and the sequence of keys reveal that the composer must have thought of them as such. There is also something truly spellbinding about hearing them this way, in seeing the sweat pour from the performer in greater and greater quantities.

Taylor did not stint or hold back from the huge exertion required by the notorious finger-twisters such as Eroica in E-flat (lest we miss the Beethoven connection), and the equestrian broncobusters Mazeppa and Wilde Jagd, which Taylor rode to victory. He made them effective as narrative, reveling in the elaborate "intros" that Liszt added to make the final versions more dramatic and disguise their original pedagogical intent.
The Past as Prologue
It wasn’t until the quieter concluding studies that listeners reached the elevated plateau where difficulties no longer seem to exist and heard the humble origins of these summits of piano technique. In Ricordanza, Taylor captured the nocturnelike remembrances that I had assumed were inspired by his first meetings with Chopin in Paris. "What depth and simplicity Liszt shows us here," I thought, until I remembered it was written by a 13-year-old — 15 years before he met Chopin.

And how could a child come up with that final piece that was to became Chasse Neige, as haunting a piece of preimpressionism as Debussy ever imagined? The entire set became a magical sleigh ride taking the audience from close of the Classical period into the heart of the Romantic.

Beethoven would have just finished his Sonata, Op. 111, when he, reluctantly perhaps, agreed to hear the talented youngster. It is fascinating to conjecture that this sonata, the only work of Beethoven’s to begin with diminished 7th chords, infected the boy with that key harmonic ingredient, even as it singled him out to be the first to play the Hammerklavier Sonata in public a decade later.

As Chrisopher Taylor played it, somewhat wearied, understandably, by the Herculean first half of the program, Beethoven sounded more like the music of the future than ever, more Lisztian in fact. I doubt if even Beethoven could have seen that coming.

Jerry Kuderna is a pianist who gives lecture/recitals every Friday at the Berkeley Arts festival.