Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Concerto Guide: Franz Liszt, Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major

It is hard to place this composition, chronologically. According to Wikipedia:
Franz Liszt composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat majorS.124 over a 26-year period; the main themes date from 1830, while the final version dates 1849. It premiered in Weimar on February 17, 1855, with Liszt at the piano and Hector Berlioz conducting.
Do we date it from when when the first themes were sketched, in which case it would be among the very first romantic concertos, even pre-dating Berlioz' Harold en Italie of 1834? Or do we date it from when the final version was completed in 1849, in which case it comes after the Schumann Piano Concerto and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto? Or from the premiere in 1855? Isn't it odd that the premiere occurred so late?

Liszt's was a complex and contradictory career. He was, at the same time, both the greatest virtuoso (on the piano, at least) of his time and an avant-garde composer (again, of his time). Interestingly enough, it was the radical nature of his themes and harmonies with their stress on the tritone and chromatic scale, that rescued his compositions from the mere shallow brilliance of the style brillant of Thalberg and Kalkbrenner. As far as the concerto goes, around the 1840s the form began to absorb that of the more-prestigious symphony, producing a "symphonic concerto". One of the symptoms of this process is the appearance of a scherzo between the slow movement and the finale. We see this in the Liszt First Piano Concerto:

  1. Allegro maestoso
  2. Quasi adagio
  3. Allegretto vivace - Allegro animato
  4. Allegro marziale animato
Going back to the genesis of this concerto, Liszt's early career was as a touring virtuoso, only the second in music history, following the example of Paganini. But by the late 1840s this was beginning to pall and in September 1847 he essentially quit his career as a piano virtuoso in favor of spending time on composition. So why didn't he complete this piano concerto when it would have been useful to him? The answer might be that Liszt actually had no need of an orchestra on stage with him! With his original compositions and a host of transcriptions and arrangements, he was entirely self-sufficient! By 1855, and the premiere of this concerto, he was appearing more as a composer than as a pianist.

The concerto, while containing a fiendishly difficult virtuoso piano part, has a lot of other interesting features. One particularly admired by Bartók is the use of the cyclic principle: themes return in varied form throughout the work. The finale in particular is a triumph of virtuoso variation technique with its use of the four themes of the Adagio and Scherzo (third movement), transformed in different rhythms and tempi. The main theme of the first movement also returns in the finale to frame the whole work. The textures are also remarkably varied, not only in the polyrhythms of the piano part, but also in the use of solo orchestral instruments in dialogue with the piano. My favorite part is the trio of piano, flute and triangle that forms part of the third movement.

Now let's listen to a particularly stunning version of the piece. This is Martha Argerich delivering a ferocious performance with Christoph von Dohnányi conducting the RSO in Berlin in 1981:


Marc said...

The video is of the Chi-Lites, ahem. :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

Not on my system! Try reloading the page...

Marc said...

No, no, sorry! I mean, it w a s the Chi-Lites here but it must have been a glitch with the browser, cache, whatever, in my machine. (And do feel free to delete these rubbish comments!)

Marc said...

The Argerich is amazing, truly, but the Liszt! I rely on MA for Chopin's Préludes but am thinking I should spend some hours and days with her massive catalogue of recordings. Is it the true story, that Lizst himself never performed any of his works in the same way? noticed that there are commenters at the YT who seem to be sniffing that MA doesn't always perform the First Piano Concerto in the same way 'because she has no clear idea' herself which is the 'proper interpretation', which, if there is anything at all to that, is criticism lodged so far above in the Empyrean as to be incomprehensible by the likes of me.

Bryan Townsend said...

I have Grigory Sokolov doing the Chopin preludes. If you don't know him, I suggest you hasten to listen. But Martha Argerich is an amazing player and this particular performance was just stunning!

There are different sorts of great players. In the guitar world there are people like John Williams who, once they settle on an interpretation, will play the piece the same way every time. Then there are players like Julian Bream who will play it differently every time. I was always more like the latter. On the piano someone like Glenn Gould would probably try to find a different interpretation every time. What might change would be small details of how phrases or dynamics are handled. But it could extend to major things like tempo, rubato and the way rhythms are handled. I don't usually read YouTube comments, but it sounds as if the commentators simply didn't realize that great players have great flexibility. Ivo Pogorelich is another that can play the same piece in many different ways.

Marc said...

Very interesting, what you write about the different styles of performance, including your own. You made a conscious decision at some point to follow the one way? I do recall reading an Ivo P. review re his... liberal interpretive practice.

Oh, it is a decided minority of the YTers cavilling at MA's supposed 'inconsistency'.

Honestly, it never occurs to me to go to YT for music, unless someone else points a video out (thank you); having used it, at one period, for watching television episodes it is still associated in my head with watching rather than listening, which is silly if perhaps not incomprehensible.

Bryan Townsend said...

Someone, I forget who, once said that consistency is the bugaboo of petty minds.

Rickard said...

It's a good choice but I prefer Liszt's 2nd and 3rd Piano Concertos. Either way it looks like the virtuosity doesn't stand in the way of aesthetic quality (which is of course a good thing).

I've been listening mostly to concertos recently, so I can share my thoughts. I think that Tchaikovsky's Piano Concertos and his Violin Concerto are all excellent choices. The only interesting concertos from the Five seem to be Mily Balakirev's Piano Concertos. They are somewhat interesting but I doubt they can be counted as amongst the best or most important. Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto is an obvious choice. I've also listened to Carl Nielsen's Violin Concerto and Flute Concerto (his Clarinet Concerto will be my next target). The Violin Concerto is not so interesting in my opinion, I found the melody writing to be too chromatic. I guess it's easier for me to enjoy harmonic type of chromaticism/dissonance than the melodic type. His Flute Concerto on the other hand is much more interesting, albeit it's a work that is relatively small in scale. I suppose you will cover Sibelius' Violin Concerto but just like with Nielsen's Violin Concerto I don't really enjoy the chromatic melodic writing here. Anyways, I guess I will backtrack a bit to Dvorak, Brahms etc.

Bryan Townsend said...

I suppose one of the reasons I chose the first of Liszt's concertos was simply that it was an historically new approach. Thanks for your thoughts on other possibilities. Yes, I certainly will be getting to the Sibelius!