Introducing GOMEZ and MIRABEAU!
“Visions of Italy” Or Barnstorming with Barenboim
A Three-Voice Invention
Frank Daykin: A historic piano recital took place on the Metropolitan Opera stage on Sunday December 14, 2008. It was the first solo recital on that stage since the heyday of Vladimir Horowitz’s yearly appearances there. The star this time: the never-idle Daniel Barenboim, who was currently in the middle of a run of conducting “Tristan und Isolde” at the Met, and giving the world and New York premieres of a new piano concerto written for him by Elliott Carter.
Mirabeau: Monsieur Carter’s music gives me a headache.
Gomez: Señor Carter needs more Latin rhythms in his music.
FD (annoyed): Children! That is a topic for another time.
The unifying theme of the music was responses to the culture of Italy, filtered through the Romantic-era sensibilities of the “rock star” piano virtuoso of the nineteenth century, Franz Liszt.
Gomez (showing off): Liszt was the “iTunes” of the mid-nineteenth century, a one-man orchestra who carried the hit songs of the operas (and lots of other symphonic music) of his time to provincial centers where the population might not be able to see a complete professional performance. All he needed was one piano and his limitless technique and imagination.
Mirabeau (superior): Even Liszt tired of this display work, retiring from the concert platform (for profit) at age 37, consenting only to give benefit concerts for charity, which he did generously for several more decades.
FD (with genuine regret): Sadly, it is the image of Liszt the flashy showman that dominated the musical critics’ appreciation of him for decades after his death, and in some circles continues to do so, despite ample evidence of his path-breaking compositional innovations, and his tireless professional generosity on behalf of composers whose recognition was not on the same “fast track” as his own.
Gomez: He wrote a “Spanish Rhapsody” for the piano, too!
FD: The age of the transcription (or paraphrase, a freer reworking of the original material) is, if not over, seemingly not as essential to our musical literacy as it once was. To discount all those potpourris, however, would be to miss out on treasure troves of pianistic innovation and compositional responses to “other people’s” work.
Of course, there were numerous “hacks,” lesser composers though brilliant pianists, who were content to spin out operatic fantasies utilizing hackneyed formulae, such as the “three hands” effect, or frenetic tremolos.
Mirabeau: Grace à Dieu, that I died before having to witness that! It was bad enough when little Mozart had to improvise on popular airs, though he seemed to take it all in stride. I now hear all my music in heaven, and get to speak directly to the composers.
FD: Ahem, but in the hands of Liszt, we hear technical devices wittily ramped up to the level where no one but he could execute them, after which point he was free to bestow upon his listeners some of his more poetic responses to the original music.
Mirabeau: Barenboim wisely began the program with the “philosophical,” spiritually elevated Liszt, taken from the “Years of Pilgrimage: Second Volume: Italy” including the three Sonetti del Petrarca, one of the two “sermons” of Francis of Assisi, and the so-called “Dante” sonata.
FD: The Petrarch sonnets began life as three songs for tenor voice and piano.
Gomez: I love tenors, especially Spanish tenors!
FD (glaring): Liszt later arranged them for piano, amplifying the poetic insight of the words through his use of clever, emotionally intense cadenzas that never revel in piano display simply for itself.
Mirabeau (astonished and jealous): Barenboim’s rendering of the three sonnets was a master class in intimacy and the staggering range of evocative color of which the modern piano is capable. Our eighteenth century fortepianos would never have been able to sustain such writing!
FD: The “vocal” line was always clear and prominent, but never over-projected, and the accompaniments, though often ornate, were always on their own level, providing a divine “carpet” for the rumination of the poet.
Mirabeau: And what rumination it is! “I feed on sadness, weep while laughing,/death and life displease me equally,/I am in this state, Lady, because of you.”
Gomez: What trash! Why don’t they just say “Yo te quiero” and get on with it!
Mirabeau: Surely you must admit Liszt captured perfectly the sentiment “Love, Judgment, Courage, Compassion and Pain,/made a sweeter harmony of weeping/than any other heard on the threshold of this world,//and heaven was so intent upon the harmony/that no leaf was seen to move on the boughs,/so filled with sweetness were the wind and air.”
Gomez: Yes, yes, but so complicated! And that whole piece ending on the second note of the scale, with the resolution played so soft I didn’t hear it, until you told me it was there. What’s up with that?
FD: Liszt’s “progressive” qualities coming to the fore, no doubt.
The second of two “Legends” for piano, “St. Francis of Assisi: The Sermon to the Birds” is one of those forward looking achievements that would find twentieth century fulfillment in the work of Ravel (“Oiseaux tristes”) and Messiaen.
Mirabeau: Those bird composers drive me mad. Time was when Daquin’s “Le Coucou” was enough to satisfy us with a hint of a bird, not a whole aviary, vulgar!
Gomez (chirpily): Messiaen rocks!
FD: Well Mirabeau and Gomez, the second of Liszt’s “Legends” for piano is a shimmering cloud of high-register piano color that manages to suggest birds without slavishly picturing them. One then hears the piety and solemnity of the saint’s message, represented by austere hymn-like phrases. The two contrasting theme areas combine as the birds grow increasingly enthralled, and then the whole piece simply evanesces, returning to the ultimate source of mystery from which it arose.
Mirabeau: Oh for more mystery and silence!
FD: The command of pianissimo sonority and rapid, perfectly clear trilling exhibited by Barenboim was the envy of many of the prominent musicians I saw in the audience, a who’s who of New York’s musical landscape.
The final work on the first half was the sonata called “Après une lecture de Dante,” which I must reinforce means after reading Dante. Liszt himself always said that it represented the feelings in the reader’s heart and mind after such stirring reading, not direct depictions of hellish scenes.
Mirabeau (puffing up): Heaven forbid, music must never stoop to such obvious means.
FD: Once you hear the interval of the tritone (“diabolus in musica,” devil in music), at one time forbidden in Western musical counterpoint, the psychological subtext leaps to the surface.
Gomez (with reddening cheeks): More hell, more hell! More poblano in the piano!
FD: The work is crammed with pianistic fireworks of every variety, though also full of contrasting episodes of angelic lyricism, carrying us from the Inferno all the way up the Paradiso.
Mirabeau (seriously): If there was any carping to be done about Barenboim, it would have had to be found in this work, whose athleticism did seem to be a stretch even for this former prodigy. I noticed many an uncharitable, callow piano student sniping excitedly to his neighbor about how much better he did it on his exam at conservatoire.
Gomez (defensively): But they are missing the fire, the passion, the big statement he made. To get caught up in details like that is irrelevant. Here he really showed inner fire!
FD: The second half of the recital portrayed a different response to Italy, three of Liszt’s arrangements from Verdi operas. In these works, we do see a bit of the grandstanding showman Liszt must have reveled in being.
Gomez: At last something I could sing along with!
FD: A rarity, the “Danza sacra e duetto finale” from “Aida,” was a good bridge from the more ethereal matters of the first half of the recital, consisting as it does of the lovers’ farewell to life on earth.
Mirabeau: The “Miserere” from “Il Trovatore” had much more conventional keyboard passagework, the sort of thing that makes me long for a simple sonata for amateurs.
FD: Finally, the well-known “Rigoletto” paraphrase was dispatched with elegant ease and bel canto vocal style brought to the piano. The ovation was prolonged, and Barenboim rewarded his fans with three encores before closing the piano lid himself. They were a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti . . .
Gomez (proudly): An Italian active mainly in Portugal and Spain!
FD: . . . played with a hushed buoyancy that was haunting.
Mirabeau: Then came Chopin’s Waltz Op. 64 #2, nicknamed the “Minute” waltz (not by Chopin) because of the too-fast performances that have become routine.
FD: Barenboim saved us from that fate with a tasteful reading.
Mirabeau (dreamily): The divine Nocturne Op. 27 #2 followed, seeming to hover in a space high above the auditorium.
Gomez: zzzzzz . . . .
© 2009 Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs
Walker, Alan: Franz Liszt—The Virtuoso Years, 1811-1847 © 1983 Alfred A, Knopf
Franz Liszt—The Weimar Years, 1948-1861 © 1989 Cornell University Press
Franz Liszt—The Final Years, 1861-1886 © 1996 Cornell University Press
This is the definitive biography of Liszt, stunning in its wealth of information, not only about the man, all those in his life, but nineteenth century culture. I believe it was re-released in a second edition, only two volumes.