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Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major

About the Work

Franz Liszt
Quick Look Composer: Franz Liszt
© Richard Freed
Liszt made his first sketches for this work in 1839, but the score was not completed until 1849, and the first performance did not take place until January 7, 1857, when Hans Bronsart von Schellendorf played the solo part, with Liszt conducting, in Weimar. Elizabeth Travis was the pianist in the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of this work, with Hans Kindler conducting, on December 1, 1935; in the most recent ones, on January 16, 17 and 18, 2003, the soloist was Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the conductor was Roberto Abbado.

In addition to the solo piano, the score, dedicated to Bronsart, calls for piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, and strings. Duration, 22 minutes.

Liszt made his first sketches for both of his piano concertos before he reached the age of twenty, but neither was brought to completion and performed until he was in his forties. Part of the explanation for that long delay is Liszt's inexperience in writing for the orchestra. It was not until the 1840s, when he took up his duties as court conductor in Weimar, that he began writing orchestral works in earnest. In orchestrating his symphonic poems, as well as the concertos, he initially had the assistance of his young assistant Joachim Raff (1822-1882, remembered now as an interesting minor composer). It was not until 1854 that Liszt felt confident enough to dispense with such help, and from then on he did all his orchestration himself; the final versions of the concertos, the Totentanz and all the symphonic poems are entirely his own.

Although Liszt himself was the soloist in the first performance of his First Concerto (February 17, 1855, at Weimar, with Hector Berlioz conducting), he entrusted the solo part of the Second to his pupil Hans Bronsart von Schellendorf (1830-1911, another minor composer, remembered more as a pianist)-a gesture possibly intended to make the point that this was not merely a work by a "virtuoso-composer" for his own use, but a serious one designed for broader use and a life beyond that of its composer.

In his First Concerto Liszt departed from the conventional concerto format to add a fourth movement, indicating that the last three are to be played without pause. The Second Concerto is cast in a single movement, but, as in most one-movement symphonies and concertos, it falls into divisions corresponding more or less to the respective movement of a conventionally structured work. The big Lisztian difference is the rhapsodic sweep which renders analysis both problematical and gratuitous. The Concerto in A might be said to comprise three normal movements plus an introduction and a concluding apotheosis-or it might be regarded as a miniature three-movement work followed by an expansive fantasy on its basic materials. Since it is built almost entirely on a single theme, the effect is virtually seamless.

The treatment of that theme is not a series of variations, but rather a chain of metamorphoses in which it is always clearly recognizable-a stunning illustration of the principle Liszt called "transformation of themes." The transformations in this instance assume many varied characters-yearning, solemn, martial, sensuous, serene, heroic-and virtuosity is never absent in this work, but it is sustained by an abundance of substance well beyond the norm for mere display pieces.