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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Recital Review: Discovering Liszt at the Weill

No, Liszt didn't show up and play. But it's a cool picture!
Photo from
On Saturday Afternoon, Carnegie Hall presented a "Discovery Day" featuring piano works and songs by Franz Liszt, bookended with appearances by noted Liszt scholars Alan Walker and Charles Rosen. The five-hour program also featured a dramatic reading with actors reading Liszt's correspondence, reviews, and personal accounts to form a sort of aural biography of the composer and virtuoso.

These performances marked the start of Carnegie Hall's 2011 Liszt initiative, celebrating the composer's 200th birthday with a series of concerts and lectures. Dr. Walker opened the proceedings with an engaging 50-minute lecture on Liszt's role as the cultural ambassador of the 19th century. The English musicologist and author of an exhaustive three-volume biography of the composer spoke with an engaging style, explaining the complexities of Liszt's life and illustrating his role in musical culture.

The concert proper opened with a slew of piano works, played expertly, if not always passionately by soloist Gregory DeTurck. The pianist focused on different aspects of Liszt' piano personality: the virtuoso, the traveler, the opera aficionado. The Reminisces de Norma were a highlight, as Bellini's operatic themes were reimagined and spun into dizzying piano arpeggios and pounding rhythms. The Legend No. 2 was stirring, highlighting Liszt's deep Catholic faith and ending with the suggestion of a key theme from Wagner's Parsifal. (The Liszt work predates Wagner's Grail opera by 20 years.)

The piano recital ended with the ground-breaking Bagatelle Without Tonality and the mournful, introspective Unstern! Sinistre, disastro, both written during Liszt's final, experimental decade. The heavy, decending piano chords of the latter work seemed to open a black abyss of sound, threatening to suck Mr. DeTurck down into the depths of Liszt's melancholy. The dramatic reading followed, with Broadway actors Michael Cumpsty, Robert Stanton and Wendy Rich Stetson trading off on anecdotes from Liszt's life, alternated with recorded piano and choral music.

The second half of the evening featured Angela Meade, an up-and-coming soprano with a powerful instrument that seemed outsized in the cozy confines of the Weill Recital Hall. The programme was all the more remarkable for being sung in four different languages, exhibiting Liszt's cosmopolitan style and affinity for diverse languages and cultures. The Three Petrarch Sonnets opened, in an almost operatic style. Pianist Bradley Moore, an assistant conductor at the Met (who will be working with Ms. Meade on the forthcoming revival of Armida) provided expert accompaniment.

"Go Not, Happy Day" (based on Tennyson) and two settings of Victor Hugo texts followed, with Ms. Meade soaring up to some impressive heights and tossing off lovely pianissimo notes. The song recital ended with the fascinating Three Songs on Schiller's William Tell. These powerful, dark songs from 1845 recall Liszt's affinity with Schubert and his mordant wit--the murderous water nixie of "Der Fischerknabe" seems to look ahead to Wagner's trio of Rhinemaidens.

The afternoon concluded with a fascinating back-and-forth between Mr. Walker and Mr. Rosen, who debated various issues within Liszt's works (the "kitsch factor" in the B Minor sonata, Liszt's debt to Chopin) in an engaging conversation. For piano aficionados, this was a meeting of the minds, and it only got better when Mr Rosen got up from his chair and went over to the concert Steinway to illustrate his points at the piano. Liszt, an educator as well as a showman, would have approved.

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