Earl Wild: Waving the banner for composer Liszt. In three-concert tribute, pianist Wild points to 19th-century virtuoso's talent

The music of Franz Liszt today lives more keenly in the hearts of many piano lovers, thanks to a recent American tour by the prodigious and supremely gifted Earl Wild. Mr. Wild last week ended a cycle of all-Liszt performances, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer/pianist's passing. The series not only wowed audiences in London, New York, Chicago, and Boston but helped advance an enlightened reassessment of Liszt's somewhat clouded musical reputation.

Wild's three concerts here, titled ``Liszt the Poet,'' ``Liszt the Transcriber,'' and ``Liszt the Virtuoso,'' gave strong evidence that the Hungarian composer -- known more for a virtuoso performing career than his legacy of compositions -- was not just a composer of noisy, technically dazzling, but empty music.

Liszt was a composer of extraordinary inventiveness, devilish complexity, and imaginative lyricism. He was, says Wild, ``a composer of far greater intellect than Chopin . . . , of far more influence than Schumann or Brahms,'' and ``the man to which every pianist owes his career.'' The latter comment refers to Liszt as the inventor of the recital itself, the first performer to make a tour playing entire programs from memory, the first to place the piano at right angles to the platform, and the first to elevate the status of musical performer from ``servant,'' as in the days of Haydn and Mozart, to ``artist.''

``We always get the impression of Liszt as the great showman, waving his hair in the air and carrying on,'' says Wild, ``yet he labored like a craftsman all his life.''

Wild is carrying the banner of Liszt with near-missionary zeal because of a ``disastrous state of musical education that has left the younger generation incapable of appreciating what Liszt did for music,'' Wild feels. ``Young pianists nowadays are happy with the Bach and Beethoven they have learned,'' he says. ``But when it comes to the imaginative music of Liszt they have no frame of reference.''

In the accomplished hands of Wild, who began playing at age four and gave his first public performance nearly 60 years ago, the music of Liszt exemplifies the great improvisatory quality Wild says he misses in the music of today's composers. Liszt ``is a composer who depends on the elegance of the performer and his or her attitude toward the music,'' says Wild. ``You have to be able to think lyrically, to think orchestrally, and of tone color. Just piano playing is not good enough; you have to have the imagination in back of the music.''

Wild's eclectic career shows why he may have greater experience than many in finding the best in all music. At 15 he went to work for a Pittsburgh radio station and also became staff pianist with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

In 1937 he went to New York to study with Egon Petri and Paul Doguereau, a student of French composer Maurice Ravel, where Wild joined the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini. He wrote arrangements for Colonel Stoopnagel on the old Fred Allen Show, played gypsy music, jazz, and George Gersh win tunes, and wrote many of Sid Caesar's musical parodies. Though extraordinarily gifted, he was labeled a ``Gershwin'' player and not taken as seriously as he might have been by the ``serious'' (a word he hates) music world.

About 1947, he decided to pursue his career as a concert pianist more methodically and has since developed what New York Times critic Harold Schonberg has called, ``by any standards, one of the great piano techniques of the 20th century, and with it a rich sonorous tone.''

Early in his career, he concentrated on Liszt when hardly anybody else was playing him. Wild's repertoire is now enormous, though, ranging from Beethoven through Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev. He has taught on the staff of Juilliard since 1977.

Wild mentions his youth in Pittsburgh, where he first heard the great virtuosos of the day: Sergei Rachmaninoff, Artur Schnabel, Josef Lhevinne, Josef Hoffman, Vladimir Horowitz, Artur Rubinstein, Wanda Landowska, Ignace Paderewski, and others.

``We no longer have the large variety of unique personalities in the piano field,'' Wild says. ``After World War II performers have been, with few exceptions, dominated by musicologists who frightened them into uniformity.''

Since then, says Wild, ``those who were strong enough to walk their own path, like the pianists of the past, were looked down on as musical renegades. Audiences throughout this country have diminished greatly through boredom with the same old repertoire and the many cloned performances.''

Wild says he was fortunate enough to have heard Moriz Rosenthal play Liszt. ``I have never heard before or since bravura playing like this. Where were the American recording companies during that period? The music world was deliberately impoverished by a total lack of concern with the musical history by the executives of the major record companies. This same tradition seems to be prevalent today.''

Wild, who never won a piano competition, also laments a world of proliferating piano competitions because he feels they generate banal and soulless performers.

``A few performers have entered the scene since the pre-competition days of my youth, when a debut was considered a serious event. With the plethora of competitions, government aid, and private grant money available, the presentation of a new artist has been reduced to the level of a debutante's coming out ball.''

Wild's three Liszt programs will be released by Etcetera Records next October. Highlights include the Ballade in B minor, ``Les jeux d'eau `a la Villa d'Este,'' the ``Fantasia quasi Sonata: Apr`es une Lecture du Dante,'' ``Funerailles,'' the ``Mephisto'' Waltz No. 1, three Transcendental Etudes, and three Hungarian Rhapsodies.

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