The Two Piano Concertos, The Piano Sonata

Liszt, Franz

album cover

The Daredevil Show-Off of the Romantic Era

It's possible that Hungarian-born Franz Liszt (1811–1886) began composing just so he'd have something dazzling to play in concert. These pieces uphold that theory. The first rock star of classical music, Liszt was a piano demon from a young age, known for performances during which he'd dispatch difficult music at breakneck speed. His first two Concertos and the work many consider his greatest achievement, the Sonata in B minor, are daredevil works that aim, first, to thrill listeners, then seduce them with jaw-dropping melodies.

For these reasons, Liszt is tricky to play. He asks pianists to maintain composure while navigating Tony Hawk–style reverse spins and somersaults; the minute his lines start to sound "hard" or in any way calculated, the composer's spell is broken. Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter understands this. He reads Liszt as a study in flickering lights and feathering runs, and breezes nonchalantly through the knottiest phrases. Recognizing that the material is plenty showy, Richter interprets the two Concertos with a minimum of flash. His steadiness, particularly during the intricate thematic reinventions of the Second Concerto, gives these pieces the gravitas they need.

When he gets to the Sonata, however, Richter pretty much puts Liszt on another level. The piece is a single continuous work, divided into four distinct sections; Richter treats the second one as a precious breakable jewel, treading lightly on the initial theme statement and bringing rapt attention to the extended pianissimo passage in the middle. It's as though Richter means to change the common perception of Liszt, suggesting that in choice moments, this composer known as a reckless risk-taker can actually communicate with a poet's tenderness.

Genre: Classical
Released: 1988, Philips
Key Tracks: Sonata in B Minor. Concerto No. 1: first movement. Concerto No. 2: second movement.
Catalog Choice: Faust Symphony, Kenneth Riegel, Boston Symphony Orchestra (Leonard Bernstein, cond.)
Next Stop: Frédéric Chopin: Études, Maurizio Pollini
After That: Olivier Messiaen: Vingt regards sur I'enfant-Jésus
Book Pages: 449–450

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