Franz Liszt was another of those nineteenth-century child prodigies, which may explain something very odd: because his family’s financial circumstances dictated that he begin concert tours at a very early age (sort of a musical variation on a classic rags-to-riches story), his musical education was somewhat truncated. Thus, when he began composing music, he had to go back and learn how: he had never studied composition, and so it took him 26 years to come up with a publishable version of his Piano Concerto No. 1.
In spite of the vicissitudes of its genesis, the First Piano Concerto has all the flash and fire we might expect from one of the great romantics, as well the difficulty we might expect from a great virtuoso. (Let it be understood that Liszt was a legend in his own time, one of the most successful and lionized performers of the century, who was also noted for his generosity, to the point of selflessness.) He began noting musical ideas for the concerto in his late teens — the first record of material later used in the concerto, the main themes, in fact, are in a notebook dated 1830, when he was nineteen years old. He finally performed it in 1855, and it was published the following year. It is not, as was Brahms’ contemporaneous Concerto in D Minor, a “modern” concerto: it is most definitely a soloist’s piece, in which, while the orchestra takes a substantial role, it is definitely secondary to the piano.
Listening through these examples of Liszt’s writing for the piano, one sees a trend that gives some insight into the degree to which the great pianist was a revolutionary. The first concerto is, indeed, cast in the three movements of the classical sonata form. These three movements, however, were intended to be played without interruption, giving it the character of a single-movement work. The Second Concerto dispenses with separate movements entirely, becoming one long movement in four sections, tied together with repetitions and variations of the themes, showing the beginnings of an architectural approach that appeared fully formed in the Sonata in B Minor.
Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor is recognized as one of the towering masterworks in the piano literature. Like many such, it was a source of controversy at its origins, and typifies the great divide in nineteenth-century music: Brahms hated it (and fell asleep during a performance), Wagner loved it (and this was before he became Liszt’s son-in-law). (Each, of course, considered himself the true heir of Beethoven, and as far as is known, neither had anything good to say about the other’s music. We can figure out from here which camp Liszt wound up in.) The sonata actually employs only a few thematic elements that are continuously transformed throughout the work. It’s a delicately poised piece, and quite demanding of the performer: it requires a sure sense of structure and absolute command of the keyboard. If those are lacking, the result can be quite horrific.
The performances in this reissue are creditable, if not spectacular. Esa-Pakka Salonen, in particular, seems to have a good affinity for the work, and Emanuel Ax’s playing is crisp and fluent. It’s certainly worth having in our basic library of classical music.
(Sony BMG Music Entertainment, 2005)