Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor, S. 178

performed by Martha Argerich

The article from a few days ago about Liszt was to try to give a few of the highlights that I personally enjoyed about Liszt’s life. This virtuoso performer and composer is likely more known through his fantastical works for piano but also orchestra, and it seems that they don’t speak to the image of a charitable, hardworking, caring man. But that’s what I see.
In any case, the work came at a time in Liszt’s life where had become less a touring virtuoso and more a composer, living apparently a rather financially stable life, choosing to perform only when he felt the urge. He was living in Weimar at the time.
The piece was dedicated to Robert Schumann, which I found odd, because in all the reading I did about Liszt, he never came up as a friend or colleague or whatever, except for having been known to perform a few of his works and transcribed a few others. The dedication was in return for Schumann’s own dedication of his Fantasie in C major to Liszt, a piece that doesn’t carry the ‘sonata’ title, but has a three-movement structure and is also considered to be one of Schumann’s greatest works for piano. So maybe it was just mutual admiration.
As maybe should not surprise us, the piece was not accepted with great warmth in its day. First
performed in 1857 by Hans von Bülow, some important names of the time had not such nice things to say about it.

“...Anyone who has heard it and finds it beautiful is beyond help” – Eduard Hanslick
… merely a blind noise.” – Clara Schumann

Johannes Brahms reportedly fell asleep while listening to Liszt perform the work in 1853, and even Anton Rubinstein got in on the criticizing action. Perhaps unsurprisingly was his (future?) son-in-law Richard Wagner’s opinion of the work. It was considered “new music” and I suppose there was lots of head-scratching at its style and expression, and on top of that the virtuosity required to perform such an unwelcome piece made it not so popular until decades later. It is now considered one of the greatest piano things of that (or any?) century.
Let’s consider Chopin for a moment. His second and third piano sonatas are quite popular works, even if the second didn’t get much love at the time, but I wouldn’t
consider them to be the man’s greatest works. As we talked about a few months ago, my impression is that Chopin was at his best outside of strict musical forms. He was a poet, and his piano trio, two piano concertos, and especially the first piano sonata suffer a bit from being cast or molded into a form that feels, for that composer, unnatural. On the other hand are his preludes, his ballades, the etudes, scherzos, these fantastic works of art that show both virtuosity and passion, perhaps Chopin at his impeccable best. But not his sonatas.
On the contrary, I find this to be one of the greatest things the man ever did. It’s only 26 minutes long, but it feels so much more epic than that. And while we’re on the topic of form, let’s talk about the form of Liszt’s sonata. The Wikipedia page says the piece is cast into four movements, but the recordings I have set it into three tracks….? In any case, it continues to say the following:

The sonata is notable for being constructed from five motivic elements that are woven into an enormous musical architecture. The motivic units undergo thematic transformation throughout the work to suit the musical context of the moment.

And yes… that does happen. This is perhaps why the piece feels so epic. It moves through these five ‘characters,’ reusing and adapting and modifying them almost to the point that they’re unidentifiable. This idea of double-function form, as best I can understand it, is to say that while the piece is played without pause, there are the (three? or) four distinct sections to the piece like many a sonata, but that the entire work, from beginning to end, also plays out as a sonata-form structure, with the exposition, development, return and recapitulation that a single movement would have. So with these two structures laid on top of one another, the end result for me is that these five motives have an incredibly connected interwoven nature to them.
If you read the wikipedia article on this piece, you’ll see the (almost) longest section is the one on analysis. Let me just be honest: I have intentionally NOT done web searches for theses and analyses of this piece because they’re rabbit holes I don’t need to go down. Charles Rosen and Alan Walker and whoever else can say about it what they will and analyze when the development section starts and exactly at what bar what theme is recapitulated and all the rest, but frankly, I don’t care. If I were performing the piece, or publishing a new critical edition of it, then that information could be very helpful, but there exists no small difference of opinion about what that structure is except that it’s this sonata-based double-function four-movement thing. How each scholar seems to organize it into its own little sections is still up for debate.
If something is so important and innate to a piece, there shouldn’t be such varying opinions on it, and therefore, I decide not to go score-reading and note-taking. What’s fascinating is that yes, some of this that I read and repeated above does seem obvious, that these different motifs or themes are the foundations of this half-hour nonstop narrative of music, and one can see how they appear and reappear and the transformations that take place, giving the piece its epic nature; it covers a ton of ground and lots of emotion, but even if you don’t catch on to its underlying complicated structure and anything else the composer was doing, the piece is still thoroughly enjoyable as a linear beginning-to-end story, whether that story is a an autobiography, or a Garden of Eden narrative or whatever you want it to be, it is still emotionally charged, virtuosic, poetic, at turns touching and others stormy.
It also seems terrifyingly challenging as a work for piano, but to me it is all these things that represent Liszt’s great body of work as a whole, not that they’re all the same, but that the standout features that make Liszt Liszt are easy to hear here. He wasn’t bombastic and loud and violent at the piano for no reason, nor did he write dainty, clinky, thoughtless works. The overwhelming feeling in this piece is that it has soul, something to say, incredible meaning, and I must say the piece also feels perfectly suited for Argerich’s style of performance, even if I don’t love everything she records. His style seems to match hers quite well, and I have listened to this piece many times with much pleasure.
As I stated a few days ago, this marks the end of our (solo) piano work for the rest of the year, actually. Stay tuned for next Tuesday’s post that will announce something big I’ve been planning for quite some time. See you then.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s