Autour de Liszt

by Wolfgang Rathert

WR: Liszt has always seemed like a traveller commuting between different musical worlds. This gives his music a certain restlessness and has led to the reproach that he was never really able to write large-scale, self-contained, fully developed works. Is this true?

PLA: This restlessness was both an advantage and a disadvantage. Liszt’s appetite for new experiences and his need to process those experiences resulted in a profound humanity. There was nothing he couldn’t translate and transcribe into music, but one might often wish that he’d been a little more focused and had striven to impose a more rigorous sense of form on all this wealth of material. The B minor Sonata undoubtedly represents a stroke of tremendous good fortune that we owe in part to the sheer obstinacy of Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, who forced Liszt to remain at his desk. It’s clear from this work that Liszt had a fantastic potential as a composer if only he showed the requisite concentration and patience.

What’s so striking about your own interpretation of the B minor Sonata is that it avoids extremes. You don’t serve it up as a virtuoso display vehicle but nor do you exaggerate the contrasting elements that the music unquestionably contains.

This work is cast in an impressive form that integrates highly differing elements. The difficulty consists in reaching the end of the piece and maintaining not only a feeling that its formal design is unified but also an awareness of the differences between its individual episodes. The work is permeated by deep contrasts that create an instrumental drama. But its single-movement form also attests to Liszt’s desire for continuity and for a flowing line – a profoundly Romantic principle. Liszt also realized this principle in his later symphonic poems, while Wagner – who is represented in this recording by his Sonata for Mathilde Wesendonck – did so in his music dramas. Berg’s Sonata shares with Liszt’s the sense of an immanent drama, but on this occasion the formal concentration is so great that we can already sense in it the Expressionist need for utterance on the part of the later opera composer. Another point they have in common is their ability to juxtapose harmonies (tonal or modal) that actually have nothing to do with each other. At the beginning of the B minor Sonata, for example, Liszt expounds the theme in a descending scale heard first in the Phrygian mode, then in a Hungarian gypsy scale. In the course of the third theme he uses the harmonic link of a tritone, creating a relationship between two keys that are otherwise extremely remote from one another. By juxtaposing Wagner’s “Tristan” chord and the revolutionary chord of fourths from Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, Berg succeeds in his Sonata in creating a link between two different worlds, one of which was ending while the other was just beginning. In turn, Scriabin was to destabilize, not to say corrupt, traditional harmonic language by introducing into it the interval of the tritone, which he did in a highly systematic manner. In this way he created a synthesis between a legacy and what in a way was its opposite. These three single-movement sonatas are introduced by a number of Liszt’s late piano pieces.

Scriabin’s tendency to establish an analogy between music and colour or, more generally, between music and the four elements is part of a particular development in the history of music. Did you want to draw attention to this development when deciding to contrast Liszt, Scriabin and Messiaen in your programme?

Ever since the 19th century there’s been a tremendous desire on the part of composers to expand music’s ability to depict other sense perceptions by means of an association of ideas. Messiaen was not the only composer to be active in this field. Nor was he the first. Liszt had an incredible gift for inventing musical and pianistic textures and colours, a gift that Scriabin and Messiaen then developed a stage further in their creation of a synaesthetic vision of sound and colour.

The second CD features works by Ravel and Bartók, two composers from the turn of the last century who may be said to have reacted to Liszt with peculiar intensity.

In Bartók’s Dirges, Liszt’s harmonic influence can be felt everywhere. One senses how far Liszt had already gone and how unreservedly Bartók was ready to follow him – but at the same time he was a completely independent person capable of opening up entirely new worlds of expression. Ravel was undoubtedly influenced by Liszt, but the aesthetic result of this engagement was a sense of distance and the attitude of art for art’s sake.

While he was running the research department at IRCAM, Marco Stroppa wrote the cycle Miniature estrose (Strange Miniatures) for you between 1991 and 2001. From this cycle you’ve chosen “Tangata manu” (Birdman) from 1995. How does this piece fit into the rest of your programme?

The second programme is systematically made up of pairs of pieces, while also describing a journey from darkness into light. The darker aspects – Liszt’s piece about the cypress trees and Bartók’s Dirge – are contrasted with the two bright fountains. Stroppa’s piece, which takes as its starting point the myth of the birdman and man’s age-old dream of flying, and Liszt’s La Prédication aux oiseaux are linked by a similar theme: in both works the airy textures are inspired by wing movements and different kinds of flight. In Messiaen’s Le Traquet stapazin and Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann we have two large-scale pieces that examine nature and time from different angles. In Messiaen’s case, the perspective is an objective one, nature being seen as a force of order, time as a meditative experience as we progress through the day; in Liszt’s case the perspective is subjective, implying, as it does, the artist’s struggle with the forces of night and his symbolic progress through time as measured in human terms. The end of the piece, which suggests an ambivalent transfiguration, celebrates the colour of E major, a key that features prominently in the last three pieces on this CD.

Translation: Stewart Spencer