performed by Krystian Zimerman and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa, or below by Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Orchestre national du Capitole de Toulouse under Tugan Sokhiev
Well, we certainly haven’t seen Liszt in a very long time, about a year and a half at this point, and even then it wasn’t a piano work, but some of his earliest symphonic poems.
We’re back now for his second and last (complete) effort in the piano concerto form (besides the Totentanz for piano and orchestra, and the third incomplete concerto, among other sketches and such). He began work on the piece as early as 1839, in what Wikipedia calls “his virtuoso period,” but he then set it aside for some time, and wrangling with it when he decided to take it back up again a decade later. It was finally premiered in 1857, but revisions on the work didn’t end until 1861.
The form of this work may not surprise those of you who are familiar with Liszt’s output.
It’s showy and Romantic, as we would expect from the composer, but not as overtly… virtuosic as, say, the first piano concerto, which has a unique form of its own, one unbroken movement with distinct sections. This second concerto, in its form, shows perhaps a greater relation to the composer’s symphonic works. In fact, early manuscripts of the work show that during its composition, it was referred to as a concerto symphonique. But Liszt wasn’t the first to use this nomenclature.
He got his inspiration for the form from Henry Litolff, who had written a number of works with this title. Wikipedia refers to Liszt’s approach as “one of thematic metamorphosis – drawing together highly diverse themes from a single melodic source.”
The Wikipedia article for this piece discusses this idea in great detail, but to put it simply, Liszt eschews the ever-so-common use of sonata form for something quite different, the “thematic metamorphosis” mentioned earlier. That article claims that Liszt said “New wine needs new bottles.” In short, he took this idea to “an extreme level,” and without discussing it in minute detail (go read the article for that), I will quote what the article cites as the effects:
Key, mode, time signature, pace and final color have all been transformed. For Liszt to sonradixally alter the music’s notation while remaining true to the essential idea behind it shows a tremendous amount of ingenuity on his part.
With what result? Well, I’ve seen the piece life, and having only been familiar with the first concerto, I was pleased, but interested in how the works differed. The work seems very much like a symphonic poem with piano rather than a concerto featuring the instrument as soloist. The piano doesn’t lead the show like it does in the first.
Since we’ve discussed both of these works already, I’ll mention another of Wikipedia’s statements, that this work is kind of a middle ground between the first piano concerto and the B minor sonata. In the first concerto, the work is in one continuous movement but with clear divisions into separate sections. The sonata, though, is one unified whole, with an overall (enormous) sonata form across the entire 30-plus-minute piece, perhaps only hinting at separate movements, and even then, they would be secondary to the more important sonata structure.
Some people who write Wikipedia articles suggest that this work is a middle point between these two, but with an interesting result. Since the work doesn’t openly inform the listener of the overall outline, the bigger picture, it can seem fragmented and episodic. Perhaps only in retrospect do we look back and see the bigger picture and what Liszt has built. At first listen, the lack of sonata form could be more puzzling than intriguing, but it’s a very interesting approach.
Listen to the work, by all means, but if you want a true analysis of the piece, at least in much more detail than I’m willing/able to give here, head over to the Hyperion program notes for the work.
It makes statements like:
- “The first theme is striking for its juxtaposition of distant seventh and ninth chords which nevertheless fail to unsettle the principal key, clear from the opening chord.”
- “A second transition presents a new theme which takes the music to B flat minor and a forceful tutti, bringing the exposition to an end. The development may be said to begin from the moment the soloist rejoins the orchestra…”
- “The material of the first transition informs the cadenza which leads to the recapitulation of the second subject, in a robust D flat major…”
- “This cadenza, like so much of the binding material of this work, is derived from the alternate falling semitone and tone from the first theme, and these intervals now immediately generate the material of the animated coda…”
That’s all great for those of you who (actually care about) or can hear these key musical elements. After all that above stuff about the piece, there’s a good argument to be made that they’re an inherent to the work, that they’re how the story is told, part of how the composer is telling the ‘story’ of this piece.
Granted, before I knew much of anything about this work, I had the chance to hear it performed live, and greatly enjoyed it. Don’t let the nuts and bolts of Liszt’s thematic metamorphosis get to you; it’s plenty enjoyable on the surface, presenting chamber-like textures in contrast with some of the larger theatrics, with solos from cello and other instruments.
But this, I think, is an example of a work I would likely enjoy if I got to know it better. It has the kinds of musical ideas that I enjoy, motivic development and all of that stuff that might sound a little too pedantic if you tried to explain it in a pre-concert lecture. If you can speak that language, and I really can’t (at least not without lots of help and some score studying), then this work has plenty to offer.
Liszt is clearly a musical mind in this regard, showing creativity and innovation, even if the work ultimately isn’t as famous (among ticket-buying audiences, at least) as the first. That being said, it’s also satisfying on a more straightforward “listen and enjoy” level. Some works are only one or the other, or at least more one or the other, but here we have a piece of complex musical development that’s also just satisfying music. How will you choose to listen to and enjoy it?
There’s no wrong answer to that, especially with a piece that offers as much as this one does. It’s unconventional, though, not your typical three- or four-movement concerto by any means, and for some, the additional effort to come to appreciate the work’s deeper treasures isn’t worth it.
There’s a lot that can be said about what people look for in music, what makes it enjoyable, and whether that sort of analysis is part of the enjoyment, but it’s also enough just to say that this is a very interesting well-composed piece of music, quite different from anything else we’ll be discussing in our string of works for piano, now mostly with orchestra (with one exception to come later).
Do stay tuned for more piano concertos in the coming weeks, and something entirely different in July, and as always, thank you so much for reading.