Liszt in the Catacombs

At Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn last night, I heard Jenny Lin and Adam Tendler perform the cycle Harmonies poétiques et religieuses by Franz Liszt as part of the series The Angel’s Share,  produced by Death of Classical and Green-Wood, curated by Andrew Ousley.

After gathering at the cemetery entrance, Ousley took us on a long walk through darkening shadows. It felt like the beginning of a horror movie, as if only one of the audience was going to return from the torments awaiting the unsuspecting participants.

The concert space in the catacombs is more or less ground level, giving the feel of a chilly mausoleum.  It’s a tiny space; too small, really, but since we were enclosed in stone, the piano resonated in a wonderful fashion. I have rarely had such an immediate sonic experience at a piano concert.

Only two of the set Harmonies poétiques et religieuses are heard frequently, “Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude” and, especially, “Funérailles.” Lin played both to the hilt; I suspect she’s had “Funérailles” in her repertoire a long time. (You could hear the audience catch their breath after the famous furious left hand octave cascades.) While the rest of the cycle may lack the immediate appeal of the two “hits,” it’s all great music, surprisingly experimental, at times oblique, and always perfectly made for the instrument. I’ve never had the opportunity to listen to the whole work in one sitting before, and now realize that this massive collection has a powerful through-line and must be one of the most successful piano cycles lasting longer than an hour.

Tendler and Lin traded off movements and turned pages for each other. Both are virtuosos who sang the lyrical melodies and hammered out the climaxes as required. All and all, an unforgettable evening. The concert repeats tonight and tomorrow.