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Lisztomania Reconsidered at Jacaranda Music

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At his death in 1886, Franz Liszt left to posterity a curious artifact that sums up the great musician's lifelong obsessions: a walking stick on which were carved the heads of St Francis of Assisi, Mephistopheles and Gretchen. All three iconic but contradictory characters were at least implied in works of Liszt presented by Jacaranda Music on April 23 at Santa Monica's First Presbyterian Church. It was one of the first local tributes to the 200th birth anniversary of the ubiquitous Hungarian pianist, composer, arranger, conductor, music director and teacher who was born in 1811.

Liszt's influence on the development of musical aesthetics in the nineteenth century was far-reaching, as Jacaranda's insightful sampling of two middle period tone poems, four lieder and one late sacred work demonstrated. But while the survey shed light on Liszt's creative process, it also confirmed that the pan-European musical phenomenon remains a brilliant but at times frustratingly uneven composer.

Liszt's lifelong quest for creative and spiritual growth straddled three musical epochs. As a child prodigy at the end of the Viennese Classical era, he performed before Beethoven and Hummel, studied with Salieri, and in 1822 contributed to one of the last projects of the era, a set of variations on a theme by publisher Anton Diabelli. Subsequently Liszt became the ringmaster of the Romantic Movement's progressive wing, originating the term "New German Music" and mediating between the prickly personalities of Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner. (Unlike either, he spoke both their languages fluently.) Outliving his two colleagues, he continued mentoring the next generation of musicians, among them Edvard Grieg, Alexander Borodin, and Camille Saint-Saëns, and laid the groundwork for the dawning of Impressionism with his use of whole tone scales in works like his 1883 masterpiece, Les jeux d'eau à la Villa d'Este.

Once the lion-king of musical Europe, Liszt ironically enters his bicentenary as something of a lamb to contemporary audiences. He is most often associated with pops favorites like the first Mephisto Waltz and the sentimental Liebestraum, even as connoisseurs like Jacaranda's impresarios admire his more esoteric works.

Unlike either Berlioz or Wagner, success came early and easily to Liszt. A personality with almost too many ideas, he barely tossed off one work before moving on to the next, composing over 700 in the process. And like many an influential composer before him (viz. Gluck and Cherubini) his posthumous reputation would suffer by the consolidating work of others who more definitively grasped the potential of his novelties. Liszt's Ballade No. 2 in b minor, composed in 1853 for piano, is often cited as the source for Wagner's Tristan chord. If so it is but one example of Wagner's synthesizing Liszt's scattered pearls into his own operas.

Liszt invented the orchestral tone poem, a fantasia-like composition built around a literary theme. The two that Jacaranda presented were in Liszt's own duo-piano transcriptions, versions popular before sound recordings enabled orchestral works to become widely known. Les préludes of 1848 and the lesser-known Hunnenschlacht (Battle of the Huns) of 1857 provided vehicles for Liszt to introduce new compositional techniques. These new paths would be further exploited by successors like Richard Strauss.

Two years ago the duo-pianist team of Steven Vanhauwaert and Danny Holt created a sensation at Jacaranda in their four-hand version of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. They returned here with a grand piano each in a yin-yang configuration for the two tone poems, joined by Mark Alan Hilt on the organ for the latter of the two. All three performed impressively.

Where Stravinsky's piece took on a whole new life in its four-hand version, Liszt's otherwise fine transcriptions of these tone poems surrendered something of their original effectiveness. Orchestral colors that sparkle in the rhetoric of Les Préludes were submerged in the thick middle-register regions of Liszt's doubled pianos, rendering the main theme merely repetitive rather than cumulative at its many returns. Yet it was instructive to hear how Liszt juices majesty into that famous tune with his secondary melodic material, a technique Wagner was to borrow for his Ring Cycle operas.

The orchestral version of Hunnenschlacht is a tricky piece to bring off. The slow-paced musical battle relies on the subtle colorings of muted strings that depict the engagement of the ghost armies of good and evil in the skies. (The piece is based on a painting of the same name by Liszt's contemporary and friend, Wilhelm von Kaulbach.) The epic struggle between civilization and paganism in AD 451 has a "gypsy scale" for Attila the Hun's forces contrasting with a church organ for the Christianized Romans.

Jacaranda tried to capture some of that drama by reinstating the organ part, but its sonorities with those of the pianos proved only a tepid facsimile of the orchestral version's catharsis. The piece's main battle motif did provoke smiles of recognition, as it strongly resembles another propulsive "warriors in the sky" theme, Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries." As Liszt's piece came after the Ring's most famous excerpt, one supposes he was able to borrow something back from his habitually purloining colleague.

Tucked in between the two much-touted tone poems was a mini-recital of four lieder, settings of Goethe poems, and they became the surprise highlight of the evening.

Mignons Lied has one of the genre's iconic texts, opening with "Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn" (Do you know the land where the lemon trees bloom...?). Liszt infuses his version with the lush scents of Italy's natural wonders. Der Kőnig in Thule is Gretchen's vision of the faithful love she craves but will never find. Goethe's two Wanderers Nachtlied poems are profound studies in man's existential relationship with nature and his own mortality.

Undoubtedly inspired by Germany's greatest poet, Liszt had employed the latest harmonic devices and rose to new expressive heights in these settings, imbuing them with some of the most sensitive and tasteful writing of his middle years. Standing proudly with settings on the same texts by the likes of Schubert, Schumann, and Berlioz, they confirm Liszt's place as an essential link to the late romantic songs of Hugo Wolf and Richard Strauss.

Mezzo-soprano Buffy Baggott, substituting for an ailing Paula Rasmussen, and pianist-collaborator Armen Guzelimian proved a magical combination in these songs, with youthful bloom (Baggott) supported by experienced mastery (Guzelimian). A California native who has made a name for herself in Chicago and Santa Fe, and was one of the Valkyries in LA Opera's Ring, Baggott possesses a fresh, creamy mezzo with interpretive resources to spare. Guzelimian provided by far the most sensitive pianism of the evening, as the two made the intense, subjective world of these songs come alive.

(Liszt's kinship with German lieder had not come haphazardly. He had studied Schubert's songs early on and made solo piano transcriptions of them that were once and are now again popular in recitals and recordings. Liszt and Berlioz were also among the first to make orchestral versions of the Schubert songs, which were to confirm, even more than Schubert's completed operas, that had the Viennese composer lived longer he would certainly have conquered the dramatic stage. These orchestrations also prepared the way for the declamatory vocalism of Wagner's mature operas, not to mention setting the pattern for the later orchestral lieder of Strauss and Mahler. Musical party-quiz factoid: It was Heinrich Heine, poet of the last Schubert songs and many of those by Liszt, who coined the term "Lisztomania.")

Liszt's sacred compositions are for most an acquired taste. I have never been able to abide his tediously protracted oratorio, Christus. To close this program, Jacaranda chose the virtually unknown late choral work Via Crucis (The Way of the Cross) of 1879. Its harmonic language is startlingly advanced and prophetic of what was to come in the decades after Liszt's death, but its means are spare and hollow. An a cappella setting of the last day of Christ's earthly journey -- consisting of an introduction and fourteen stations of the cross -- it is in many ways a painful work to listen to, with disorienting, disintegrating harmonies that mimic imminent death, relieved only with a few traditional chorales suggesting a distant Godhead. As a music drama its effect lies somewhere between understated and unstated.

Via Crucis came toward the end of Liszt's long career and he undoubtedly ascribed to it personal associations with his own suffering and regrets of unachieved aspirations, with the depression of losing friends and even the toll of excessive alcohol and absinthe favored in Liszt's long-suffering old age. But even as he was disintegrating as a personality, Liszt reached for new musical horizons with this work's whole-tone melodies, non sequitur harmonies, and intimations of atonality. Via Crucis was not published during Liszt's lifetime and he may have intended it only as a kind of personal Augenmusik -- more for the inner eye than the outer ear.

Its performance at the close of the program was so unadorned with ingratiating moments as to have left many in the audience numb and puzzled. Jacaranda Music's Patrick Scott and Mark Alan Hilt are unabashed champions of this work, but the evening's ten professional vocalists -- selected from the ranks of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and billed as the "Jacaranda Chamber Singers" -- struggled nobly to give the bloodless music character. There was one stand-out amongst them: Bass Abdiel Gonzalez sang the role of Jesus with a plangent voice and a dramatic thrust as bracing as the thought of facing down one's own death.

Thinking again of that curious walking stick, the evening had opened with a Mephistophelean battle between good and evil and it closed with the solemn pieties of a St Francis of Assisi contemplating his savior's sacrifice. In between a plaintive song of a love-stricken Gretchen and three others of like sentiments had fleshed out Jacaranda's survey of the essential characteristics and aesthetics of the force of nature that was Franz Liszt.

----ooooo----

What: Passion & Stillness: Celebrating the Bicentenary of Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
When: April 23, 2011
Where: First Presbyterian Church, Santa Monica, California
Who: Jacaranda Music, featuring duo-pianists Steven Vanhauwaert & Danny Holt; organist Mark Alan Hilt; mezzo-soprano Buffy Baggott & pianist Armen Guzelimian; Jacaranda Chamber Singers: sopranos Tamara Bevard & Karen Hogle Brown, altos Monika Bruckner, Amy Fogerson & Nancy Sulahian; tenors Andrew Brown & Jody Golightly, basses Michael Blanchard, Dylan Gentile (as Pilate) & Abdiel Gonzales (as Jesus).
Picture: Franz Liszt, portrait by Pierre Petit from 1870. Source: Wikipedia Commons.
Note: Blog updated on May 31, 2011: Liszt never met Schubert but studied with Salieri.
Rodney Punt can be contacted at Rodney@artspacifica.net