The Kennedy Center

Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major

About the Work

Image for Liszt Composer: Franz Liszt
© Peter Laki

Franz Liszt's two piano concertos evolved side by side over a period of some twenty years, originating during a time of extensive concert tours and completed after Liszt settled down as court conductor in Weimar. (Actually, Liszt started a third concerto at the same time: this work, in E-flat major like the well-known No. 1, was reconstructed and first performed in the 1980s.)

For Liszt, these years were an ongoing struggle to find his own voice as a composer. He had to reconcile two opposite tendencies that were equally strong in his artistic makeup: the Romantic virtuoso whose spirit refused to be restrained by rules or conventions, and the master builder who strove to create large-scale structures governed by their own internal logic. Liszt could not have hoped to resolve this contradiction without a major change in his lifestyle he decided upon in 1848. That year he retired from public concertizing as a pianist and accepted the post of Kapellmeister at the small German court of Weimar. A decade of intense compositional work began, resulting in the completion of many old projects and even more new ones, including the cycle of symphonic poems, the grandiose B-minor sonata for piano, and the two concertos.

Throughout their long gestation, the two concertos followed strongly divergent evolutionary paths, and each has a distinct personality. Conventional wisdom calls No. 1 more heroic and No. 2 more lyrical, but those characterizations apply to the respective openings better than they do to the two concertos on the whole.

Liszt's solution to the dilemma between Romantic freedom and Classical balance was in a method now known as "motivic transformation." Expanding upon earlier practices found in the works of Beethoven and Schubert (among others), Liszt devised ways in which a single melodic or harmonic idea could be made to change its character from lyrical to playful, dramatic, or martial, to name but a few. The frequent alternation between these characters, signalled by major changes in tempo, key, and orchestration, make simple labelling, like the one referred to above, somewhat problematic.

Both concertos are in one movement but contain numerous shorter sections, which are played without pause. In both works, the outlines of a classical four-movement form are readily discernible, as some of the character variations are modelled after symphonic slow movements or scherzos. The second concerto's main idea, to be transformed in the course of the work, is stated at the very beginning by the woodwinds and immediately repeated by the piano. It combines a lyrical, singing quality with some fairly unusual accompanying harmonies. This idea is contrasted with a more energetic and rhythmical second subject that evolves into an Allegro agitato assai section containing the first fortissimo passage involving the entire orchestra. This second subject, like the first, undergoes some motivic transformation and reappears thoroughly "tamed" as an expressive string melody, preparing the return of the main theme as a quintessentially romantic cello solo, accompanied by the piano. The following Allegro deciso functions as a development section where both subjects are taken up simultaneously. The last portion of the concerto, as in many Liszt works from this period, is a triumphal march. (It has been said that Liszt's companion during the Weimar years, Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, favored endings of this kind.) It is true that the march section in the Second Piano Concerto incorporates some contrasting episodes, such as a lyrical piano solo and a quasi-scherzo. But the final word belongs to the march, growing ever louder and faster to the end.