Saturday marked the 200th year of Franz Liszt.
I recently blogged about Brahms being a good gateway into classical music. Liszt is another one. It is impossible to miss his meaning even if you don't know the language. The problem is that not all of his music is very good: No other major composer has as many repetitive, boring, and underwritten pages. But the great stuff, especially for piano solo, is immortal.
There are so many incredible Liszt recordings. However there is only one Liszt recital CD that I couldn't bear to part with, a compilation of Claudio Arrau on Phillips with "Sonetto 104 del Petrarca," "Ballade No. 2," "Sonetto 123 del Petrarca," "Vallées d' Obermann," "Valse oubliée No. 1," "Les jeux d' eaux a la Villa d'Este," and the etudes "Waldesrauschen" and "Gnomenreigen." This is the very finest of the non-virtuoso Liszt (although still very hard of course) played by a committed musician with one foot in the 19th century and another in the 20th.
(Astonishingly, this album — which I thought was considered essential by all piano buffs – seems to be completely out of print. I guess some of these tracks are on iTunes and at the Amazon MP3 store, but be careful to get the official studio recordings. The complete Arrau/Liszt/Phillips box must turn up sometimes, that's a worthy investment.)
Arrau plays with devout fidelity to the composer, an approach which would have astonished Lizst himself. Most of Liszt's absolute best works are transcriptions of other's music, done up in fancy style to celebrate the pianist.
There is nothing wrong with a pianist then adding their imagination to Liszt's own. The quintessential Vladimir Horowitz recordings are quintessential Liszt performances. "Danse Macabre" from 1942 is famous. These days young virtuosos play the Horowitz version, but really they should treat the score like an improvisor and add their own touches.
On YouTube you can watch and listen at the same time. There really is something old-school casual about this: Horowitz hits a huge clinker in bar 36 but keeps going.
Many can play play fast and loud but the best Horowitz sounds like the Devil himself. In the end, "Danse Macabre" is not a technical performance; it is spiritual.