Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6
My favourite piece to perform by Liszt is the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6. I started to play this piece at a very early age (around 10 years old) and it really helped me to build confidence at the keyboard.
It helped me enormously with my technique, especially because of the famous octaves, and is a good way of teaching students how to play rubato (in the middle section).
I think it is extremely important for young artists to learn these skills, particularly when performing Liszt. It taught me a key and invaluable lesson – how to make a difficult piece feel and sound easy. This work has stayed with me for years and even after all this time, I never ever tire of it.
Sonata in B minor
Liszt’s B minor Sonata is, I think, one of the greatest works of the 19th century, and probably the one work in which he completely fulfilled the potential of his youth. It’s an exploration of human experience, a mountain, an ocean. And yet it’s interesting that Liszt, who gave poetic titles to most of his music, simply calls this one ‘Sonata’.
The work holds together so well that giving it a title would perhaps have limited it. Anybody can press the keys of the piano and make it sound, but this piece is difficult because you need to keep the tension of the architecture.
A performance of it has to have two things: it has to sound like you’re improvising, but also feel like every single bar is inevitable. I can only compare it to a great novel or play, in which everything is a surprise but when you look back at the end, everything seems to fit.
Mephisto Waltz No. 1
I would say the Mephisto Waltz No. 1 has most inspired me as a pianist. People often think it’s just about virtuosity, but actually he tells a strong story. That’s difficult to do in a ten-minute piece, but Liszt does it here.
Based on Lenau’s Faust, it’s set in the Dorfschenke, a village inn where there’s a wedding. Mephisto plays the violin – a waltz – while Faust starts to dance with Gretchen. It’s an emotional, rather than erotic, love story, though there’s also this dark Mephistophelian side. Of course the piece is difficult to play but for me it’s all about emotion and telling a story.
s a pianist, Liszt took a lot of risks and in his music there are always huge jumps between registers. But you have to play Liszt without fear, and with total freedom. With Liszt the power doesn’t come from totally clean, planned playing but from the crazy and diabolic.
In general, the image people have of Liszt is loud, fast, bombastic, virtuosic and pyrotechnical. There is a lot of that, it’s true, but he was a much deeper composer than that.
The Deux Légendes (St François d’Assise: la prédication aux oiseaux and St François de Paule marchant sur les flots) show Liszt as a poet and are incredibly powerful spiritually, too. When you play them in concert, you find that there is something completely magical that happens every time.
For me, St François d’Assise is like time is completely stopping – plus you have all those incredibly beautifully written birdsongs and the trills and tremolos: very difficult to render, but incredibly touching and moving, and inspiring to play. St François de Paule is also very intense and very powerful.
It also shows the orchestral side of Liszt on the piano – he had a mastery of transcribing the orchestra to the piano and you really find that here.
Sonata in B minor
I’d have to say the B minor Sonata has most inspired me, because it’s Liszt’s towering achievement, in any form. He broke so much ground with this piece; it’s a fantastic piece of architecture and the ideas have such quality and depth.
There’s been so much debate as to whether it’s one, three or four movements, yet it’s incredibly cohesive. It seems, well, the best word I can come up with is ‘inevitable’. I like to think that, in a good performance, the listener should be aware, at least instinctively, of how long the piece will last and what’s likely to be said or expressed. It’s very much like telling a story.
Some pianists, unfortunately, seem to treat it as a virtuoso vehicle first and foremost. Some listeners, too, I think. But to me thinking of it like that is like tearing a page off a Gutenberg Bible and using it to wrap carrot peelings.
Sonata in B minor
The B minor Sonata is Liszt’s most complete work for piano. You sometimes feel in other pieces that – inspired though they might be – there are slightly weaker passages or extraneous notes that don’t fulfil a genuine musical purpose, but no one could ever say that about the Sonata.
As a player, it offers huge challenges: at almost 30 minutes without a break, there’s a lot of stamina needed; you have to try to keep an overview of the whole piece so you don’t lose its shape or narrative; and, of course, you have to display a spectrum of emotions that ranges from the spiritual to the demonic.
It’s a work I’ve played for almost the length of my career. Recently, I played it at my own festival, and felt it was one of my best performances. It was great to know that, at 58, I can still play that piece!
Années de pèlerinage
I’ve been studying and playing the Années de pèlerinage a lot this year. From the Troisième Année, the ‘Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este’ has struck me as being so incredibly adventurous. This piece really heralded 20th-century pianism – all the pianistic ideas of Ravel, Debussy and Messiaen are already present here.
The fluidity of the pianistic style of it didn’t exist before, and it also must have sounded almost shocking at the time as it has so little feeling of functional harmony. It is tonal, but even the relationships between dominant and tonic are blurred. Liszt loves to add so many tones – an added sixth, a seventh, a ninth – to the chords so they always sound suspended, which is one of the tricks of Impressionism.
Technically it is challenging due to the fact that you have to barely touch the keys – on a modern piano it’s really difficult to get the fluidity and transparency that you want in all the tremolandos that accompany the main theme. It’s such a wonderful piece, though. I’m always in awe of it when I play it.
It’s an easy choice: Liszt’s oratorio Christus is simply the best piece of music he wrote. I get inspired as a musician, and then play the piano. Fortunately, though, he did arrange four numbers from it for solo piano, and I’ve been lucky enough to conduct the whole thing. I think it’s far and away the best Romantic oratorio, and it’s criminal that it’s little known here.
Wagner went to the first performance, and he stole bits of it for Parsifal – he also used bits of Liszt’s The Bells of Strasbourg Cathedral. If I had to pick one inspirational piece from Christus as far as the piano goes, it’s the ‘March of the Three Holy Kings’.
It’s kind of a symphonic poem in itself and the piano version is beautifully done. When Liszt does piano versions of orchestral pieces, like his Beethoven Symphony arrangements, he manages to get the spirit and sound absolutely right.
• A guide to Franz Liszt
• Review: Liszt Sonata in B Minor (Hamelin)
• Review: Liszt Piano Works (Hough)