I consider myself reasonably knowledgeable about the history of classical music, and I’m reasonably into the music of Franz Liszt. (After all, it was in my teenage years that I decided that his “Totentanz” bumped hard enough to put it up against the Wu-Tang Clan on a car tape.) Yet before I attended “Interpreting Liszt,” a festival put on this weekend by the Post-Classical Ensemble and Georgetown University, my primary mental image of the legendary pianist/composer featured him banging out his own Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and causing a crowdful of women to swoon at his feet. (I wish I were exaggerating.)
Now I know, thanks to the festival, that Liszt was also a seeker of the divine, an eccentrically devout Catholic, an engaged explorer of other art forms, and a guy who symbolically coded his key signatures, among other things. The festival also showed us, through memorable performances, exactly how all these strains of Liszt’s life turned up in his art.
Two concerts on Friday and Saturday night were the festival’s centerpieces, but each day featured afternoon discussions of various aspects of Liszt’s music and performance. For gainful-employment-related reasons, I was unable to attend Friday’s discussion of historic performances of Liszt, with Post-Classical Ensemble artistic director and music historian/commentator Joseph Horowitz, Stanford University musicologist/pianist Kumaran Arul, and Ukrainian-American pianist Mykola Suk, but the two pianists at the table put theory into practice during Friday night’s concert, “Liszt and Italy,” held in Georgetown’s Gaston Hall. There Arul and Suk played all of Liszt’s “Années de pèlerinage—Deuxième Année” (or “Years of Pilgrimage: Second Year: Pilgrim Harder”) which takes place in (big surprise coming) Italy. They also tossed in some bonus Italianate opuses.
In the grand tradition of Post-Classical Ensemble concerts, “Liszt and Italy” added to the music-making a bunch of talking and a big screen showing slides of various paintings and sculptures. Anna Celenza, the chair of Georgetown’s Department of Performing Arts, imparted some facts about Liszt’s travels, while GU student actor Michael Mitchell read from Liszt’s letters, and Laura Benedetti read the original Italian versions of the three Petrarch sonnets that served Liszt as inspiration, while translations were shown on the screen. This worked way better than program notes for the following reasons:
- When a picture or poem is shown on a giant screen next to the performer, your eyes can easily move between it and the performer, rather than having to look down at program notes.
- Additionally, paintings are more vivid when they are in color on a giant screen.
- Mitchell’s reading gave a strong voice to the composer.
- Celenza’s stuff was concise and delivered smartly.
No such discussion ornamented Saturday’s concert, titled “Angels and Devils.” I could have used some explanation regarding the merits of the religious music on the program, because frankly I couldn’t hear them. A setting of “Ave verum corpus” fared best, with striking dissonances rendered strongly by the Georgetown University Chamber Singers under conductor Frederick Brinkholder. By contrast, the melodies and harmonies of the “Inno a Maria Vergine” for chorus sounded banally happy; they weren’t helped by some occasional difficulties with ensemble entrances and the work’s ungainly length.
P-CE music director Angel Gil-Ordonez, conducting a freelance orchestra, also presented a Pastorale from “Christus,” a three-hour oratorio that I had never heard a note of before Saturday. The Pastorale depicts joy beside the manger, with delightful tone-colors and folk rhythms in the woodwinds gradually spreading to the rest of the orchestra; at times it echoed Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony, but with less memorable melodies.
Most of the talk and excitement of the festival centered on Liszt’s piano music. Belying the “those who can’t, teach” adage, Arul gave some really fine performances when Liszt was in Italy on Friday night. True, he had some trouble at first, overpedaling the opening “Sposalizio” and stretching its tempo until its melody felt disassembled, but he settled into a groove with the three works based on sonnets of Petrarch. In the Sonnet 104 piece, which concerns Petrarch’s attempt to capture his beloved in words to ensure her immortality, Arul’s phrasing and approach suggested the poet trying out and elaborating phrases until they reached emotional climaxes. The vision of a lover in Sonnet 123 here came out of a cloud of ambiguous, fascinating harmonies, limpidly and steadily played. (The next day, Thomas Mastroianni, professor of piano at the Catholic University of America, gave an interesting presentation on symbolism of keys, relating the second-year pilgrimage to other Liszt works on artistic and religious subjects.)
After intermission, Arul conjured two even more vivid visions in Liszt’s pieces on St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds and walking on water (respectively). Arul’s even, unfailingly lovely trilling at the high end of the keyboard made the former sound connected to nature and heaven at once; by launching into the water-walking without a break, he maintained the otherworldly feeling for an audience ready to believe in miracles.
Early Saturday afternoon, the hard-working Arul gave a performance of the B minor Ballade as part of another talk, which I had to miss. Later that afternoon, he gave a talk about the approach Liszt and his pupils took to Beethoven, the thrust of which was that they often employed more rubato than we’re used to, in a manner that might sound strange to us, with the idea of making the composer’s ideas more vivid and “modern.” Current moderns, of course, mostly think of note-perfection as a necessary element of a truly great performance, with the performer acting as a vessel for the composer’s genius — an attitude foreign to Liszt’s practice, according to contemporary accounts. So, a theory goes, to play Liszt’s music, you should approach the notes freely and imaginatively, as Liszt would have, with the idea of getting the biggest possible impact from the work. Suk served as the exponent of this idea at “Interpreting Liszt,” and boy did he make it compelling.
Suk played with such freedom in tempo, phrasing, articulation, and other pianistic dimensions that at times his performances sounded like first cousins of the standard interpretations. His Friday night “Fountains of the Villa D’Este” featured the same cascades of notes mimicking the spray and play of water, but Suk put them into continuous, glossy, sparkling curves rather than the terraces of notes more often heard. Here a great deal of virtuosity made the performance more naturalistic. The opposite held in “Après une lecture du Dante (Fantasia quasi Sonata),” where Suk pushed and pulled the tempo and hyped the chordal eruptions to create an irresistible, galvanizing intensity.
With great freedom to transform the printed score comes great responsibility, of course. On Saturday, Suk showed his awareness by playing right in step with the orchestra in “Totentanz,” while taking full advantage of his opportunities to twist out the demonic and lyrical aspects of Liszt’s writing. The concert featured the original 1849 opening of the work, with a battery of trombones and kettledrums blasting out the “Dies Irae,” connecting the performance to Celenza’s pre-concert talk in which she explored the work’s roots in Hans Holbein’s “Todtentanz” series of satiric woodcuts; these feature death-skeletons playing those same instruments, making another nice connection for both Liszt and the festival.
Yet the finest expression of Suk’s style and of Liszt’s music came earlier in Saturday’s program, in the B minor sonata. This work unites everything that I heard discussed over the weekend — the key relationships, the angelic and the demonic, the virtuoso demands, the challenges of interpretation. Suk’s spontaneous approach worked perfectly with the sturdy structure of the B minor sonata; its nested sonata-form elements and transforming melodies supported Suk’s lyrical flights. The slow section in particular sounded ravishing, with Suk controlling his volume down to the slightest pianissimo and still clearly articulating what felt like a long unbroken chain of a melody. This side of Liszt — celestial, still, and ravishing all at once — complements the barnstorming virtuoso, and the “Interpreting Liszt” festival succeeded brilliantly in giving us all that and more.
While Gaston Hall is a lovely place to see a show, done up in hardwoods, religious paintings, Masonic symbols, and other lavish decoration, it also has a vent with an extremely squeaky fan or louver or something that just kept squeaking through both Friday and Saturday’s concerts, interweaving its need for WD-40 with the piano during quiet passages. Though Arul and Suk had such concentration that it was easy to shut out the distraction, the situation was still suboptimal.
On Saturday night, the people around me in the audience also talked much more than I’ve heard in a while, and one of them recorded all of the Totentanz on her iPhone, which I think is illegal (should I have reported it to someone?) and was definitely distracting. In addition, after the second choral performance and during the “Pastorale,” we had what sounded like a big pile of scores falling on the floor, a noise especially jarring in the happy, chirpy piece it marred. Again, the performances stood fine on their own, but it would have been nice not to have had to contend with these issues.
In other environment news, the problem with having a festival on a college campus is that it feels like you are in college again. I guess this is only a problem for me, since I never ever want to go back to college unless someone will deliver a much-enlarged paycheck at the end of my stay, but it was noteworthy. Particularly evocative of my student years was Celenza’s talk on “Totentanz,” which was held in an English classroom on whose blackboard the words “simile, metaphor, metonymy” had been written. Déjà vu for an English major! Fortunately, Celenza quickly erased the irrelevant terms, and if the talk is any indication, Celenza is a fine professor.
Other People’s Perspectives: Joe Banno and Charles T. Downey (reviews of the Saturday concert).