Franz Liszt: A Romantic remembered

Franz Liszt changed the course of music, yet his work has fallen out of favour. He's about to get the recognition he deserves, though, as Nicola Christie discovers
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The Independent Culture

The first 12 days of January on BBC Radio 3 are going to feature Mozart, back-to-back. If the programmers were braver, they would have gone for Franz Liszt instead. Austrian demi-god, the first popstar, a 19th-century wonder who transcribed the entire set of Beethoven symphonies for piano – just to get them out – "saved" Wagner's operas from extinction when the composer himself was in exile, and generally changed the course of the music world forever.

Franz Liszt would have been 200 years old next year. Concert halls, broadcast platforms and CD releases/downloads are all going to be featuring him.

Born in Raiding, Hungary in 1811 – at around the same time as fellow Romantics Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann – Liszt was the most modern of the Romantics, shifting musical performance and musical composition into new gears. As a performer, he practically invented the solo recital as we know it today – a concert given by a single artist who gets to play what he/she feels like for their devoted fans – presenting his performances with a level of drama and posturing that, at the time, was unheard of, whipping his gloves off on entering the stage; they would later be ripped apart by frenzied women. The 1975 Ken Russell film, Lisztomania, with Roger Daltrey as the composer, dramatised this fan adoration. As a composer, he discovered capabilities of the piano that, had not been found previously.

Ironically, it is these achievements that have prevented him from becoming the star he might have been for our own generation.

"There is a dirty-word feeling about the word 'virtuosity' – particularly in the UK," reflects Australian/UK pianist and musicologist Leslie Howard, who has finished recording every single piano piece Liszt ever wrote for a 99-CD box set of Liszt piano music to be ready for the bicententerary celebrations. "The idea that you play lots of notes but you don't play any music and you don't use your brain. But Liszt didn't write it to be difficult – he wrote it because he thought, 'this is what the piano can do and this is what you can do with it'. The number of notes on the page looks daunting, but if you look at it carefully you will soon see that you can get around them."

It is Liszt's repertoire for the piano that is devastating in its romanticism, drama, inventiveness and reach; pieces like the Nocturne Liebestraume; the Transcendental Study Consolations; and the Paganini variations – transcripts of a set of string variations by the legendary violin virtuoso Nicolo Paganini, (who inspired Liszt to do with the piano what he had done for the violin). Long, lavish, heady chromatic climbs; staggered, devastating, melodramatic plunging octaves; endless inventiveness and showmanship.

Is there an appetite for this today? "I think if you play with vulgar excess, Liszt sounds excessively vulgar," says Howard. "Liszt, more than any composer, suffers from bad piano playing. But I think most people who have a prejudice about Liszt know very little about his music – it would probably surprise them to know that many more of his piano pieces are slow not fast, many are quiet rather than loud, that harmonically he was one of the most inventive composers of all time. These things might have escaped their attention – in the flurry of notes."

It is also, undoubtedly, the flurry of notes that has caused Liszt's orchestral writing to be sidelined – a body of work that changed 19th-century musical development forever, yet one that has been entirely eclipsed by the solo piano repertoire.

"Liszt was the inventor of the modern orchestra," says the young French composer François-Xavier Roth. "He created new forms for the orchestra but also new ways for the instruments to play together. He was a complete visionary in his use of form and construction." In the first week of January, Roth will lead the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Liszt's "Second Piano Concerto" and the thrilling symphonic tone poem "Mazeppa". "Mazeppa" is one of a handful of Liszt's tone poems – a one-movement orchestral form inspired by a poem, story or painting – that gets played in concert halls today. When you listen to the complete set – 13 pieces of music ranging in subject from Shakespeare's Hamlet to the Greek myth Prometheus – it's amazing how little these been played. Lasting an average of 20 minutes, they are the perfect concert material, and yet we only hear a handful every now and then. Indeed, in the past ten years of the Proms, we have had only 12 performances of Liszt repertoire (compared to 64 of Mahler, say) – and eight of these have been solo piano pieces. Why hasn't this music been played more?

"I think it's fair to say that Liszt hasn't found a great 'believer' in his music yet," says the chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, Gianandrea Noseda, who recently completed a recording cycle of the complete set of Symphonic Poems with the BBC Phil and is performing Liszt's "Dante Symphony" at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall in February. "When you compare him to someone like Mahler – who we hear all the time in the concert hall – it took Leonard Bernstein to champion his music and perform it around the world. Then a younger generation took Mahler up and now everybody is conducting Mahler. I would say that without Lenny Bernstein, Mahler would be heard as infrequently as Liszt.

"He was the bridge between the symphony and the opera, the composer that took us from Schumann to Wagner. Without Liszt the musical direction of Dvorak, Strauss, Debussy, Schoenberg – to name but a few – would have been totally different."

Maybe the upcoming year of celebrations will set things straight. There are grand plans underfoot, with a Barenboim/Boulez performance of the two piano concertos at the South Bank Centre in June, a whole host of concerts and recitals programmed for most of the major concert halls around the country, and – this is just a rumour but an exciting one – performances of the complete set of tone poems at the 2011 BBC Proms.

Many believe that Franz Liszt paid a high price for the level of fame he achieved in his lifetime; that the love affair with him almost exhausted itself for future generations. It might be about to start again.