Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Of Note

By Larry Adams

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  For much of this century, Franz Liszt has been far better known for his notorious personal life and for his career as the 19th-century piano virtuoso than for being a composer of substance. In the popular imagination, Liszt is the lover of Marie, Countess d'Agout and Carolyne, Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein. Liszt is the father of Cosima, who married the conductor Hans von Bčlow and then ran away with Richard Wagner. Liszt is the piano virtuoso who reduced instruments to kindling and then bestowed the broken strings and hammers on his ardent admirers. Liszt is the pianist who married the poetry of Chopin with a formidable technique suggested by Paganini.

Certainly, Liszt's compositions found their way to the concert stage, but the compass of his popular works was narrow indeed: the symphonic poem Les Préludes, two piano concertos, the Hungarian Dances, and a handful of salon pieces such as the ubiquitous "Liebesträume."

By the 1960s and '70s, however, attitudes began to change toward Liszt and his music. Pianists like Raymond Lewenthal, Michael Ponti, and Leonard Pennario began to rediscover such Liszt contemporaries as Sigismond Thalberg, Freidrich Kalkbrenner, and Louis Moreau Gottschalk. At the same time, the record-buying public's thirst for the complete works of a given composer led to the reexamination of forgotten repertoire.

Liszt's standing as a composer benefited greatly from this general reevaluation. He was finally viewed as progressive musician who influenced such 20th-century composers as Olivier Messiaen and Bela Bartok. Liszt became recognized, along with Hector Berlioz and Robert Schumann, as an early champion of cyclic form, in which the movements of pieces are linked by common thematic material. His invention of the symphonic poem from programmatic elements of opera, ballet, and the concert overture became a focal point for scholars who were crucial in rehabilitating Liszt's reputation as a symphonic composer. And the phonographic thirst for complete works led pianists such as György Cziffra, Jorge Bolet, and especially Alfred Brendel to rediscover Liszt's work as a transcriber.

It was amid this great interest in Liszt that Fernando Laires created the American Liszt Society in 1964. The society's current membership of some 600 Liszt enthusiasts, evenly divided between scholars and performers, has served as a North American nexus for the study of Liszt's work and life; the organization has also been instrumental in examining the tradition of Liszt's performance practice. It has done these things through the semiannual publication of the Journal of the American Liszt Society and through its annual Liszt Festival. For the last five years, Mark Waite, Dean of Vanderbilt's Blair School of Music, has been the editor of the Journal, and this Oct. 9-11, Blair hosts the festival.

The emphasis this year will be on the art of transcription; some 28 pianists will perform during the three-day event. According to Waite, "With Liszt, this was not a trivial part of his career or his output. It stretches from straightforward transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies to the transformations of operatic arias by Bellini and Donizetti."

Nowadays, transcription is looked upon as more of a craft than as an art. But in the days before the proliferation of orchestras and before the ready availability of recordings, transcriptions, largely for solo keyboard, were the only way of putting works before a musically informed public. Symphonies, operatic scenes, even string quartets were known to the cognoscenti as keyboard works. In most instances throughout the 19th century, works were simultaneously published in their original and in their transcribed forms. In many instances, the original composer was also the transcriber.

Waite notes that the Oct. 10 concerts, devoted to Liszt's transcriptions of all nine Beethoven symphonies, will best display his straightforward style of transcription. "He really makes a note-for-note transcription of those on the solo piano." Such is not the case with other works that will be heard during the festival. Throughout the three days, several of the performers will tackle some of Liszt's freest adaptations, the reminiscences and paraphrases of operas, which were a staple of Liszt's own concert programs.

Like the wider perspective of the ALS itself, not all of the programs will be devoted to the music of Liszt. Waite says he is looking forward to a 2 p.m. Oct. 9 performance by Adam Wodnicki that will feature works by the Polish virtuoso, composer, and statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski. "While I'm not absolutely dying to hear an entire Paderewski program," Waite remarks, "Wodnicki brings a kind of reputation that leads me to believe that it will be interesting." Waite is likewise keen on a 3:45 p.m. performance, also on Thursday, by Rebecca Pennys. No mean interpreter of Liszt herself, she will give all of the Préludes, op. 28 by Chopin as well as a performance of the 10 Hungarian Dances that Brahms arranged for solo keyboard from his 21 dances composed for piano four-hands.

As for the Liszt compositions to be performed, not all of them will be transcriptions. On Oct. 11 Eugenia Gabrieluk will give an 11:30 a.m. recital entitled Spanish Music of Franz Liszt, and later that day, at 3:30, Eugene Albulescu will perform several of Liszt's groundbreaking late works. But this festival is ultimately about the art of the transcriber, and at its heart will be the Oct. 10 cycle of Beethoven symphonies arranged for solo keyboard. "Like many conceptual programs," Waite says, "it's going to be a fascinating document, and...some of the most interesting pianists at this festival will be playing those [symphonies]." Among the performers will be William Black, from the Cincinatti Conservatory of Music, who will perform Beethoven's Seventh Symphony beginning at 3:40 p.m.; John Salmon, from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who will deliver Beethoven's Third Symphony at 10:45 a.m.; and David Korevaar, of the Westport School of Music, who will perform Beethoven's Eighth Symphony beginning at 4:20 p.m.

In addition to the concerts, the festival will also include lectures by Maurice Hinson on the art of transcription, an appreciation by Jay Rosenblatt of the friendship between Liszt and Berlioz, and an examination of the career of Emil von Sauer, one of Liszt's most noted pupils. Tickets for the three-day festival are $30 for the entire event or $10 per day. Call Blair at 615-322-7651 for more information.

This festival's focus on Liszt as transcriber will probably not transform his popular image. Liszt will still be remembered for his amours and for all those broken pianos. But the works performed this weekend should help dispel the perception, even by knowledgeable audiences, that Liszt was chiefly a writer of flashy salon bagatelles. The taste and refinement of the Beethoven transcriptions, for instance, will show a discerning musical mind at work. And the inclusion of non-Liszt works will reveal a supple mind that both influenced and was influenced by the surrounding musical culture. For these three festival days, Nashville will hear the work of a virtuoso.

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