Piano Concerto No. 1
Related Artists/CompaniesFranz Liszt
National Symphony Orchestra: Sir Mark Elder, conductor / Stephen Hough, piano, plays Liszt - Jan. 16 - 18, 2014
Elder conducts Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 featuring Stephen Hough--known for "playing of utmost intimacy and lyricism" (San Francisco Chronicle)--plus R. Strauss's Don Quixote showcasing NSO principals David Hardy and Daniel Foster.
About the Work
"Franz Liszt was one of the most brilliant and provocative figures in music history. As a pianist, conductor, composer, teacher, writer and personality — for with Liszt, being a colorful personality was itself a profession — his immediate influence upon European music can hardly be exaggerated. His life was a veritable pagan wilderness wherein flourished luxuriant legends of love affairs, illegitimate children, encounters with great figures of the period, and hairbreadth escapes from a variety of romantic murders. Unlike Wagner and Berlioz, Liszt never wrote the story of his life, for, as he casually remarked, he was too busy living it." If it were not for the fact that Liszt's life had been so thoroughly documented by his contemporaries, we might think that the preceding description by American musicologist Abraham Veinus was based on some profligate fictional character out of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Not so. By all accounts, Liszt led the most sensational life ever granted to a musician. In his youth and early manhood, he received the sort of wild and unbuttoned adulation that today is seen only at the appearances of a select handful of rock music stars. He was the first musical artist in history with enough nerve to keep an entire public program to himself, rather than providing the grab-bag of orchestral, vocal and instrumental pieces scattered across an evening's entertainment that 19th-century audiences had come to expect. He dubbed those solo concerts "musical soliloquies" at first, though he later called them by the now-familiar term, "recitals." ("How can one recite at the piano? Preposterous!" fumed one British writer.)
By 1848, Liszt had made his fortune, secured his fame, and decided that he had been touring long enough, so he gave up performing, appearing in public during the last four decades of his life only for an occasional benefit concert. Amid the variegated patchwork of duchies, kingdoms and city-states that constituted pre-Bismarck Germany, he chose to settle in the small but sophisticated town of Weimar, where Johann Sebastian Bach held a job early in his career. Once installed at Weimar, Liszt took over the musical establishment there, and he elevated it into one of the most important centers of European musical culture. He stirred up interest in such neglected composers as Schubert, and encouraged such younger ones as Saint-Saëns, Wagner and Grieg by performing their works. He also gave much of his energy to his own original compositions, and created many of the pieces for which he is known today — the symphonies, piano concertos, symphonic poems and choral works. Liszt had composed before he moved to Weimar, of course — his total output numbers between 1,400 and 1,500 separate works — but the early pieces were mainly piano solos for use at his own recitals. His later works are not only indispensable components of the Romantic musical era in their own right, but were also an important influence on other composers in their form, harmony and poetic content.
As if composing, conducting and performing were insufficient, Liszt was also one of the most sought-after piano teachers of the 19th century. He was popular with students not just because he possessed an awesome technique that continues to challenge every serious pianist. Liszt was also a direct link to that nearly deified figure, the glorious Beethoven, who had, so the story went, actually kissed the young prodigy on the forehead with his own lips. Furthermore, Liszt was a pupil of Carl Czerny, the most eminent student of Beethoven. To make this already unassailable combination of technique and tradition absolutely irresistible, Liszt brought to it an all-encompassing view of mankind that enabled the mere tones of the piano to surpass themselves and open unspeakable realms of transcendent delight. A friend once remarked about the composer's wide variety of interests, "One could never know in which mental stall Liszt would find his next hobby horse." Liszt was a truly remarkable man, arguably the most important figure after Beethoven in terms of his cumulative influence in all of 19th-century music.
Liszt sketched his two piano concertos in 1839, during his years of touring the music capitals of Europe, but they lay unfinished until he became court music director at Weimar in 1848. The first ideas for the E-flat Concerto appeared in a notebook as early as 1830, but the score was not completed, according to a letter from Liszt's eventual son-in-law, the pianist/conductor Hans von Bülow, until June 1849; it was revised in 1853. The premiere was part of a week of gala concerts honoring the music of Hector Berlioz at the Grand Ducal palace in Weimar, thus allowing the French composer to conduct while Liszt played. A memorable evening!
Liszt required of a concerto that it be "clear in sense, brilliant in expression, and grand in style." In other words, it had to be a knockout. While it was inevitable that the E-flat Concerto would have a high degree of finger-churning display, it was not automatic that it should also be of fine musical quality — but it is. Liszt undertook an interesting structural experiment in the Concerto by fusing the substance of the concerto form with the architecture of the symphony. ("Music is never stationary," he once pronounced. "Successive forms and styles can only be like so many resting places — like tents pitched and taken down again on the road to the Ideal.") Though the work is played continuously, four distinct sections may be discerned within its span: an opening Allegro, built largely from the bold theme presented immediately at the outset; an Adagio that grows from a lyrical, arched melody initiated by the cellos and basses; a vivacious, scherzo-like section enlivened by the glistening tintinnabulations of the solo triangle; and a closing Allegro marziale that gathers together the motives of the preceding sections into a rousing conclusion. Of the finale, Liszt wrote, "It is only an urgent recapitulation of the earlier subject matter with quickened, livelier rhythm, and contains no new motive.... This kind of binding together and rounding off of a whole piece at its close is somewhat my own, but it is quite maintained and justified from the standpoint of musical form." Béla Bartók judged this Concerto, because of its grandiose recall and interpenetration of themes in the finale, to be "the first perfect realization of cyclical sonata form." It was this formal concept — a single-movement work in several sections utilizing just one or two themes — that Liszt was also to use in his tone poems of the following two decades and in the Second Piano Concerto.