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ClassicsOnline Home » LISZT, F.: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Totentanz (Nebolsin, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Petrenko)
Franz Liszt’s two piano concertos amply display both his extraordinary pianistic ability and his originality as an influential Romantic composer. The first, premiered in Weimar in 1855 with Berlioz conducting, is a path-breaking tour de force whose four movements, played without break and thematically linked, moved Bartók to acclaim it as “the first perfect realisation of cyclic sonata form”. The second, equally brilliant but more integrated, exemplifies Liszt’s belief that “New wine demands new bottles”. The Totentanz (Dance of Death), perhaps inspired by an Italian fresco, is a powerful series of variations on the Medieval Dies irae chant.
By Chris Green
By Julian Haylock
By David Denton
Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 • Totentanz
Liszt was born at Raiding, in Hungary, in 1811, the son of a steward in the service of Haydn’s former patrons, the Esterházy Princes. Encouragement from members of the nobility, allowed him in 1822 to move to Vienna, for lessons with the famous piano teacher Czerny. From there he soon travelled to Paris, the base for a career as a travelling virtuoso, his own technical brilliance inspired by hearing the demon violinist Paganini. One of the most remarkable pianists of his time, he won adulation from audiences. A liaison with a married woman, the Comtesse Marie d’Agoult, who became the mother of his three children, led to extensive travel abroad, and after their separation to an important change of direction, when, in 1847, he settled in Weimar as Director of Music to the court of the Grand Duchy. There he found solace in the presence of a Polish heiress, Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, estranged wife of a Russian prince. Now he turned his attention to the development of a newer form of orchestral music, the programmatic symphonic poem, and, as always, to the revision and publication of earlier compositions, including his two piano concertos. In 1860 Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein moved to Rome, hoping to have her first marriage annulled, as it had already been by the Russian Orthodox Church, and thus to be able to marry Liszt. He followed in 1861, but, with final permission for marriage allegedly withheld, was able to settle in the city, lodging with a religious order, although not without some material comforts, and turn his attention to church music, while the Princess continued her 24-volume study of the interior causes of the exterior weakness of the Catholic Church, living elsewhere in Rome. For the last 25 years of his life Liszt developed a pattern of existence that he described as ‘three-pronged’. In Rome he pursued his religious interests, returning to Weimar from 1869 to teach and advise a younger generation of musicians, and annually, now as a national hero, visiting Hungary, where he did much to foster national musical development. He died in 1886 while visiting Bayreuth, where his unforgiving daughter Cosima, widow of Richard Wagner, lived, concerned more with the continued propagation of her husband’s music than with her father.
By the age of fourteen Liszt had written two piano concertos, now lost. The first surviving concerto, the Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat major, was sketched out in 1832, but only orchestrated in 1849, with the help of the young composer Joachim Raff, revised in 1853, and given its first performance in Weimar in February 1855 with Berlioz conducting, before further revision and publication in 1857. The concerto is novel in form, with movements that are cyclically connected, and caused some scandal by its inclusion of a triangle in the Scherzo, leading Hanslick, a hostile critic in Vienna, to describe the work as a ‘triangle concerto’.
The opening motif played by the strings has an important rôle to play in the concerto, answered by the octaves of the solo piano, which goes on to a cadenza, before the opening motif continues to be transformed in various ways. Muted strings open the B major Quasi adagio, before a rhapsodic passage for the solo piano and elements of quasi-recitative. A solo viola and then a solo clarinet lead to the soft triangle rhythms that introduce the Allegretto vivace, followed by the return of the opening motif, softly at first from the soloist, and then with full force from strings and trombones, before woodwind echoes of the Quasi adagio. The concerto ends with a virtual summary of what has gone before. Themes from the Quasi adagio are transformed, and elements derived from the opening motif of the whole work return, leading to a brilliant conclusion.
Liszt wrote his Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major in 1839 and revised it during the Weimar years. It was published in 1863. Liszt had conducted the work in public for the first time in Weimar in 1857 with his pupil Hans von Bronsart as soloist. Structurally the concerto is in one continuous movement. Two thematic elements are presented in the opening Adagio, the first heard at the outset from the clarinets and the second with sharply marked accompanying figuration. A descending display of chromatic octaves leads to the B flat minor Allegro agitato assai, which introduces third and fourth thematic elements, the latter offered emphatically by the strings, reinforced by the bassoons. A brief cadenza leads to an E major section, marked Allegro moderato, which opens with the fourth theme now transformed, with the direction dolce espressivo. Here the first theme is heard again from a solo cello and the piano introduces a fifth theme, marked con abbandono. A brilliant cadenza is followed by a D flat major Allegro deciso, in which the fourth theme can be heard in another transformation, accompanying a metamorphosis of the second theme. The first theme undergoes a further transformation into a march in the final Marziale in A major, capped by the concluding Allegro animato, with its glissandi and stretto, providing a triumphant ending.
The source of Liszt’s Totentanz (Dance of Death), a work described in its published subtitle as a paraphrase of the Dies irae, the sequence from the Requiem Mass, was pictorial rather than literary. In 1839 he had visited Pisa with Marie d’Agoult and there had seen the fresco of the Last Judgement, attributed to Francesco Traini, which has commonly been suggested as a possible source, while others have proposed Holbein’s series of wood engravings, Todtentanz, to which Liszt refers obliquely in a letter to his son-in-law, Hans von Bülow, to whom the work is dedicated and who gave the first performance in The Hague in 1865. Liszt wrote Totentanz in 1849, revising it for later publication and performance. It is in fact a series of five variations, following the opening statement of the theme, the fugato fifth of which leads to a finale that is itself a series of variations.
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