This time of year, I try to program some “lighter fare” on my different platforms, and as my first OTF for December, I thought I’d share a pair of podcasts that provide a “complete” set of the 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies by Franz Liszt (or should I say, Liszt Ferenc)
We all have heard from time to time the expression “Generational Talent” to describe a person who stands out amongst the peers of his generation. They say, in my beloved Hockey, that Wayne Gretzky, the late Jean Béliveau and – more recently – Sidney Crosby and (soon you will hear) Connor McDavid are generational talents. Franz Liszt has to be a generational talent – taking nothing away from Frederic Chopin or Felix Mendelssohn who were in his peer group.
There are a couple of things I take away from reading up on Liszt in preparing for these podcasts, and I wanted to share them with you because I think they are – in many ways – ingredients that have a lot to do with the inception and the make-up of the Rhapsodies.
First, I think it is at times somewhat unfair to call Liszt a Hungarian composer. Bartok and Kodaly are, in my view, a lot more “Hungarian” that Liszt. Liszt belongs to the Donauschwaben Community of German-speaking migrants from the Danube Valley who settled in the Hungarian sectors of the Autro-Hungarian Empire in the late 18th Century. Liszt’s father and grandfather before him were both (amateur) musicians as well as (at one point or another) managing estates of the Princely Eszterházy family. As musicians, they were good enough to partake in the musical activities of the Eszterházys under Haydn and Hummel.
The Franz Liszt story is one of a precocious talent which, once recognized, was the impetus for his family to move to Vienna and later to Paris, so that Franz could get exposed to a richer musical environment. The move to Paris was to allow Franz to enrol at the Conservatoire, but admission was denied to non-French applicants, so Liszt’s father, Adam, took on the role of music tutor for his son. Liszt would say his father was a demanding taskmaster, nothing surprising when the pupil far outshines the teacher… It is only later, when rubbing elbows with some of his peers, that he realized he needed to get more invested in his preparation, and the results were – clearly – astonishing!
As I said, Liszt is Hungarian by “birth certificate”, but we can also say that he’s a “Born-Again” Hungarian. As Liszt toured Europe as a piano virtuoso, notably in the late 1830’s, he returned to his native Hungary where he re-encountered those folk tunes of his youth, and from there the Rhapsodies are finally hatched.
All the works bear dedications to important Hungarians of the day (Szerdahelyi, Teleki, Festetics, Kázmér Esterházy, Mme Reviczky, Apponyi, Orczy, Augusz, Egressy), or to musicians with Hungarian interests (Joachim, Ernst, von Bülow). The later works express an even stronger affinity with Hungary: Rhapsodies XVI–XVIII are entirely original compositions in the Hungarian manner, whilst XIX returns to the methods employed in the earlier works, this time citing the origin of the themes. Rapsodie hongroise I was begun no earlier than 1847, and uses material from the Consolations. The piece is in the familiar csárdás pattern of lassú and friss: fast and slow sections, each with a mixture of elements of improvisation and variation.
More insight on the individual rhapsodies can be found in the excellent “introduction” to the complete rhapsodies recorded by Leslie Howard for Hyperion. It is hard to characterize the level of pianistic gymnastics required to perform these works – especially as I am not a pianist myself. If I were to provide a synopsis of any one of these, I’d say something like “a mix of melancholy, glittering keyboard acrobatics and stormy, rousing dance”.
Rhapsodies no. 2, 5, 6, 9, 12, and 14 were arranged for orchestra by Franz Doppler, with revisions by Liszt himself. These orchestrations appear as S.359 in the Searle catalogue; however, the numbers given to these versions were different from their original numbers. The orchestral rhapsodies numbered 1-6 correspond to the piano solo versions numbered 14, 2, 6, 12, 5 and 9 respectively.
The pianists we have retained for this effort constitute a varied mix of stellar soloists: Misha Dichter, Nelson Freire, Alfred Cortot, Grigory Ginsburg, Alfred Brendel and Vladimir Horowitz.
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
6 Hungarian Rhapsodies, S. 359
[S. 244, no. 14, 12, 6, 2, 5 and 9 arranged for orchestra by Franz Doppler, with revisions by Liszt]
Hermann Scherchen, conducting
13 Hungarian Rhapsodies, S. 244
(Selections and pianists here)