Bombast, lyricism, and harmonic inventiveness of Liszt by Leslie Howard at St Mary’s Perivale

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Exploring Liszt at the keyboard: A lecture-recital by Leslie Howard (piano) including Grosses Konzertsolo, S.176 and short excerpts from other works. Live-streamed (and available on YouTube) from St Mary’s Perivale, 25.10.2020. (JB)

Leslie Howard at St Mary’s Perivale

Mountaineers frequently see their challenges as a kind of religion – in the proper meaning of that word. Edmund Hillary ‘conquered’ Everest just in time for the Queen’s Coronation in May 1953. His path-maker on this feat was the Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay. Hillary who was a New Zealander, received a knighthood and later an Order of Merit; his Sherpa fellow explorer had Nepalese citizenship at the time, and had to make do with just the George Medal. Hillary toured the country then known as Great Britain, with some outstanding slides from the one-hundred-strong expedition team. They even arrived in darkest Accrington, in north-east Lancashire where an audience member asked Hillary why he was impelled to climb Everest. His answer became famous: Because it’s there. This was obviously not the first time he had been asked that question.

Sometime in the mid-1950s, I was grounded because of bad weather, in (what was then) Calcutta, waiting for a connecting flight to New Delhi and another connection to Srinagar, to then in a rickety bus along the world’s highest mountain road to Leh, the capital of Ladakh. A very shy young man of slender frame and intelligent eyes asked if he might be seated at my table in the airport lounge. Of course. Probably one of the many Nepalese mountain tribes from the country’s north-east, whose nomadic miles were said to have increased when the aeroplane came into its own. He tested the ground with me to find out whether I might be the right bloke in which to confide his fears of the recent flying machines.  I happily lent him my ear. And began to ask questions about his own background. This came out cautiously in bits and pieces.

An announcement told us that our flight would only be ready to leave at dawn next morning. But we should report to Indian Airways desk where we would be given a good hotel for the night. He panicked. He said he didn’t have with him the money for the hotel. I explained it was taken care of by the airline. Was I sure? I certainly was, having been in this same predicament before. We went to the desk together, given our vouchers for the best colonial five-star hotel in Calcutta and told our bus was waiting to take us there. At this point I noticed there was a lot of bowing and scraping toward my new friend. So much so that we were given our own taxi to the hotel. Over dinner (we were both ravenously hungry) he then said who he was: Tenzing Norgay, who with Edmund Hillary had conquered Everest in 1951.

We were in adjoining suites, both of us assured we would be given wake-up calls next morning. But that was not enough for him. Would I please agree to ring his bell when I woke tomorrow? He said the gods had given me to him. To me, that felt the other way round. There was no problem for me to play personal butler next morning. So I did.

Liszt’s life was full of gifts from the gods. And a continuous concern that he wouldn’t be repaying them properly. He too was profoundly religious. Exceptionally handsome, sexually promiscuous, buckets of natural charm from all accounts, no one of any importance that he didn’t know. Leslie Howard tells us he was second only to Napoleon in the sculptures and photos which were made of him in his lifetime.  And yet and yet, there was a profound sadness in him too. This was almost certainly not self-recrimination. More like regret in not being able to fully realise the enormous potential of one of the greatest creative minds of the nineteenth century.

Most of the music we hear today comes from his Weimar period where a typical day, Maestro Howard reminds us, would begin with rising at 5.30am, working on composing and teaching until lunch, followed by letter writing, reading and other literary pursuits; then there were his own piano recitals or concerts and operas to conduct. He rarely retired for the night before 1am. In his last decades he was hyper-active as an emissary for the Vatican and known as the Abbé Liszt. Some of the best religious music belongs to this period. It couldn’t be more in contrast to the bombast of say, the Hungarian Rhapsodies.

In contrast to Leslie Howard, it seems to me that Liszt’s piano music is extremely uneven: there are masterpieces as well as duds in all categories. Liszt’s social Catholicism gave him empathy for the underdog. Then as now, the Hungarian minority were aggressively forging independence within the Austrian Hungarian Empire. And the folk music of Hungary had always a special appeal to Franz with its ambiguous settings within the pentatonic scale. His direct incorporation of the gypsy rhythms and seemingly hollowed-out scales really work too. Though for sheer entertainment of gypsy music, give me Pablo de Sarasate any day: it sounds less forced. Sarasate knew his violin better even than Liszt knew his piano. Liszt got his violin virtuosity from Paganini’s spectacular displays. And they feel somewhat secondhand when they speak Hungarian.

This brings us to the public concerts Liszt gave over a nine-year period. Howard reminds us that these concerts were not like our concerts today: fewer rehearsals, orchestras cobbled together at the last minute with only rare opportunities for the players to see the music before they played it. Often the players were sight-reading. All eyes and ears were on the soloist. And concertos – Liszt’s included – were written with this in mind. Add to all that that the concerts were also rare. The soloists were the gods. At least for this night. And a patron would be paying for the soloist’s accommodation for the night, probably in exchange for another solo recital.

One of Liszt’s greatest contributions to music is his piano arrangements of orchestral works. Could he get orchestral sounds out of the piano? He would have a damned good try. Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was a Mount Everest call. Franz ‘conquered’ it rather well. People couldn’t go to hear this music live. But they could buy the piano transcription and play it at home. (Don’t look too critically at what Liszt’s pianistic demands must have made on these players!) Liszt also wrote piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s nine symphonies (two pianos for the ninth). You don’t have to have read E M Forster’s Howards End or have seen the James Ivory movie of it to know what a challenge this music made to amateur musicians. And henceforth increasing concert hall audiences.

But of all these arrangements, my own preference goes to Liszt’s transcriptions and fantasias of the works of other composers he admired. And they are legion. Certainly, Liszt’s main contribution to the entertainment industry. There are those who even prefer the Tannhäuser overture transcription to his son in law’s (his second daughter, Cosima, had married Richard Wagner) thunderous original. And besides, you could knock the Liszt out of your piano any day of the week. And the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie almost certainly did!

I confess that I was disappointed that Leslie did not give us his own preferred fantasia. My own choice is divided by equal pleasure I get from both the Rigoletto and the Carmen fantasias – both enjoyable for their delivery of the soul of those originals.

It certainly helps your understanding of Liszt if you follow him through his trials with variants on what for want of a better term is called the classical scale. To explain these variants to music students can be tricky. To explain them to a non-specialist audience is particularly difficult. But let me try.

In ‘classical’ music your ear tells you when the piece has come to rest: almost always on the chord which is formed on the first degree of the scale (the tonic). The next most important chord is formed on the fifth degree of the scale (the dominant). It feels comfortable for the ear to change its alliance from tonic to dominant. And even back again. They are the home keys, along with the chord on the fourth degree (the subdominant) – much loved by hymn writers. The dominant adds a seventh to its base and you are declaring serious alliance to the tonic. Changing key between tonic, dominant and subdominant requires only one new note (a sharp, flat or neutral) not included in the original key signature. (Liszt experimentally tried doing away with both key signatures and time signatures – how many beats to a bar.) Some of this must have felt to nineteenth-century audiences like journeying into outer space, to folks who had never been out of the village where they were born.

And following all the exploration, Liszt pretty well always returned to the tonic. It took the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern and their followers) to break free of tonality. Much later Anthony Burgess (himself a composer) said the Second Viennese School were thrashing around in tonality exploration without noticing they were unable to express joy. A superb illustration of the road to hell being paved with not such good intentions, if I may say so.

Late Beethoven and especially Schubert, were masters who challenged key centre all along: without opening their parachutes, so to speak. Schubert was breathtakingly effective on unexpected key change. (Just listen to the E flat impromptu [three flats] which has a middle section in B minor [two sharps] where he tricks the ear by repetition of a jerky rhythm in the new key: this is where we’re at now folks!) But Schubert’s manuscripts were not available until many decades following his death.

All the above would be immediately recognisable if instead of using words to explain tonality changes (modulations) one was seated at a piano illustrating the mechanisms.

I was especially sorry that Leslie decided to exclude the Liszt Sonata in B minor from the programme. Presumably because we all have our favourite recordings of this masterpiece. But that is rather like organising an exhibition of Van Gogh without any of his sunflower paintings.

Still, the wise St Mary’s Perivale organiser, Hugh Mather, was thrilled to be hearing for the first time the Grosses Konzertsolo, S 176 (Grand or Great Concert-solo) which Liszt constructed round fragments which he had already tried out in earlier pieces and which now were woven into a whole like his Piano Sonata, with three movements to be given without a break. Sorry Leslie, but to my ear, this music failed to come together as a whole. It was a first hearing. Then confirmed by a second. I was bored blue. I will stick with the Sonata please. But I am delighted that you have Hugh’s support.

Jack Buckley

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