Wanted: pianists who really understand Franz Liszt's music

One of the main reasons Franz Liszt's music has had so much trouble being accepted in the past few decades is the lack of performers who really understand it. This was brought home strongly during a series of piano recitals titled ``The Legacy of Franz Liszt'' at Alice Tully Hall. The range of selections was broad, the three pianists I heard -- Tam'as V'as'ary, Joseph Villa, and Fran,cois-Ren'e Duch^able -- all acclaimed for their Liszt. And yet, only Mr. Villa's recital gave the listener any real idea of the subtext in Liszt's music. And, without subtext, Liszt becomes a frivolous exercise in flashy fingerings.

Liszt's music is not easy to fathom, mixing, as it does, the profound with the gaudy. Happily, a most valuable book issued by Limelight Editions helps shed some light on Liszt the man and Liszt the artist. ``Remembering Franz Liszt'' is devoted to the memoirs of two of Liszt's students and disciples, Arthur Friedheim and Alexander Siloti. Admittedly, both are biased in favor of the composer/pianist/pedagogue, but that in itself is a bracing alternative to the generally anti-Liszt nonsense one runs into regularly in current biographies, commentaries, and music criticism.

From Friedheim's accounts of studying with and playing Liszt, it is clear that the best music was surprisingly visionary -- suited to the master's unprecedented technique and far-reaching, even modern, views of the expressive powers of music. Friedheim goes so far as to say that Liszt was, at heart, a mystic, and that without that knowledge, the music is impossible to comprehend.

These days, people dismiss something like ``B'en'ediction de Dieu dans la solitude'' as bad music. But just look at the sort of performances it receives -- in general too fast, the extremes of dynamics severely cut down, and no sense of the importance of the pauses between chords, or the feeling of a supple tension through rests.

In his rendition, Mr. Duch^able performed it with brittle tone, and with no sense that the music had any extra-musical implications whatsoever. During intermission, I kept hearing ``But, he's French.'' Well, so was Robert Casadesus, yet his extraordinary account of the Liszt A minor Piano Concerto (Odyssey Y-35216) remains one of the most consistently satisfying, musically provocative ever available on record. Just because Duch^able's playing is brittle, colorless, cold, yet clear as crystal, does not mean it should be automatically labeled ``French.''

Liszt would have been appalled by what passes as Lisztian performance style. Granted, he wrote the music for his hands, his mind. And it must be remembered that his performances of other music -- especially Beethoven -- were said to be life-altering experiences.

In his probing late pieces, where the elements of melody, tonality, and prescribed rhythmic pulse begin to evaporate, we hear his once-much-admired music of the future. The embryo for this music was planted in the best of his earlier pieces, yet this is the quality so many musicians refuse to search out.

Clearly, Liszt's deeper implications baffled Duch^able throughout his recital. His is not a dismissible talent, but, considering how much music there is to be played, one wonders why he would choose to specialize in a composer whose very core eludes him.

At least Mr. V'as'ary gave us thoughtful, trenchant musicmaking. His readings of the first two ``Ann'ees de p`elerinage'' may have lacked the grand aura, may have been too introverted and even-keeled, but a serious, thoughtful musician was clearly on hand, sharing his latest ideas about these cycles.

V'as'ary's unostentatious technique was something to appreciate anew. And yet, Liszt needs a touch of showy display now and then -- the sense that something truly dazzling is taking place, which gets the audience to first sit up and take notice, then stand up and cheer.

It is the very quality that Villa has in great quantity, along with the insight, the vision, and the seemingly endless reserves of heart needed to make the audience feel, as well as hear, what is going on. The program was a bracing mixture of the great with the entertaining, the early and the late.

He understands the stylistic subtleties of Lisztian phrasing; he perfectly times the momentary hesitation on the attack of a climactic chord; he keeps all the voices clear in the thickest of passages; he consistently negotiates runs of crystalline clarity while maintaining a fully rounded tone.

Villa moved with ease from the world of Schumann-Liszt ``Widmung'' to that of the ethereal, rhythmically elusive ``Valse Oubli'ee, No. 2.'' He could bring to life the roaring drama of the second ``Ballade,'' and then melt the heart in ``Consolation No. 3 in D flat.'' Saving the best for last, he unveiled the gamut of colors and all the reserves of technical prowess for a dazzling account of the Bellini-Liszt ``La sonnambula'' Fantasy.

In sum, this Lisztian affair showed of the beauty, the power, the profundity, and the sheer entertainment of Liszt, in just the right amounts. Needless to say, Villa's audience gave him boisterous cheers, and a standing, stomping ovation.

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