Sunday, October 23, 2011

Liszt 200

A day late, I know, but whatever.

I'm celebrating by listening to Marston Records' newish set, Liszt Illuminated, recordings by Jorge Bolet, Gunnar Johansen, and Claudio Arrau; beautiful music, incisive and beautiful playing.

Alex Ross writes:
Kenneth Hamilton has a fine, unsentimental appreciation in the New York Times...
And do I ever disgree.

First, I don't think the article is an appreciation of Liszt. At best, it's a brief survey of critical reaction to Liszt, by composers, critics, and Liszt himself; Hamilton doesn't cite the musicological literature on Liszt to speak of, nor does he quote from the dozens of pianists and conductors who go on playing Liszt year in and year out.

As for the title, "Still Wondering if Liszt Was Any Good," see that last sentence. Those pianist keep performing Liszt for reasons beyond demonstrating their steel-fingered piano skills, and surely good performances of his piano music make Liszt's virtues quite clear. Hamilton is asking the wrong damn question.

And yeah, plenty of composers have some junk in their catalogs. I encourage a look through the works in Beethoven's other catalog, the Werke ohne Opuszahl (works without opus number). Or even listen to Wellington's Victory, an entertaining potboiler.

The sum of the article is: Liszt is madly inconsistent, wrote some good stuff and some bad stuff. Um, discuss why, please. Compare and contrast a few works. Be a critic, not just a reporter.


Alex said...

Ditto! These maddening evenhanded reportage ticks grate when discussing current events but its just absurd when applied to whether or not someone who died more than a century ago has a worthwhile musical legacy (the fact that you are getting 1000+ words on it in a major daily should be some indication?)

Someone should do a series on this theme..."Jury still out on Titian"..."George Eliot: Good Stuff or Too Wordy?"...

Lisa Hirsch said...

And what about Dickens?

OTOH said...

Hamiliton is not really a critic, nor a reporter - he's a pianist, an author, and professor. He's written a book-length study of the Liszt Sonata and also an exceptional book about 19th century pianism and what became of it.

Who knows who wrote the title and who knows how that piece came to be written and who knows what the editors did to it before it was published...

Drew said...

I completely agree. Reporting that any composer other than Mozart or Bach was inconsistent is a "Man Bites Dog" story to anyone with a passing familiarity with the music. Just about any composer after (and including) Beethoven was inconsistent. As composers began to experiment and push the limits of composition, it's only natural that not every idea was a success.

For a start, I would have been more interested in a closer look at Liszt's influence on his contemporaries. Where would Wagner and Berlioz have been without Liszt's near-obsessive championing?

Or consider the interesting idea that Liszt's constant recrafting of his earlier works provides us with a unique view of the developing tastes of an artist during one of the more interesting periods in music history? Hamilton flirts with this idea at the end of the article, but fails to develop it further.

Liszt was a tremendous force in a time where an explosion of innovation in technology, literature, visual art, philosophy, etc., pushed the limits and potential of music as never before. A look at his legacy, however brief, has to do more than observe that his work was hit or miss and we happen to have alot of it.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Excellent points, thank you!