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Liszt and Improvisation

The featured pianists in Post-Classical Ensemble’s two-day “Interpreting Liszt” festival, in collaboration with Georgetown University, were Mykola Suk and Kumaran Arul. Suk’s performances are all about risk – interpretively, emotionally, his art is one of inspired brinkmanship. He embodies a spirit of improvisation. Arul actually improvises.
In my experience, Suk’s readings of the B minor Sonata and Dante Sonata surpass in impact the Liszt performance of any other living pianist. His performance of Totentanz, at the DC festival, transcended kitsch to a degree I would not have thought possible. (You can hear his Liszt Sonata on the Post-Classical Ensemble website; you can hear his Dante Sonata on an amazing new Music&Arts CD.) Arul’s festival repertoire included the two Liszt Legends – Preaching to thSt. Francis Walking on the Water, St Francis Preaching to the Birds – readings bristling with extemporaneous passages and also seamlessly fused by an extensive improvised transition. That is: for Arul, improvisation is not a parlor stunt (taking tunes from the audience and turning them into Beethoven or Chopin) or a tangential felicity (“preluding” in between pieces on a recital program). The following further thoughts on “interpreting Liszt’ are excerpted from my program book essay:
Mykola Suk’s performance of Apres d’une lecture du Dante is a profound act of interpretation. It is significant that no transcription of Suk’s rendering of this “fantasia quasi sonata” would closely resemble Liszt’s notes on the page. The notes, to be sure, are mainly there, but Suk’s liberties – of tempo and rubato, of pedal, touch, and dynamics – are extreme. In fact, to follow the score, listening to Suk, is a confining and irrelevant experience.
What Suk’s Dante Sonata makes obvious is that the spirit of this piece is improvisational – that it in fact doubtless arose from the act of improvisation, and is fundamentally un-notatable. Liszt did the best he could setting its singular textures down on paper. But surely the letter of the score is here a mere point of departure. The performer is challenged to produce something that, if not a picture of what Liszt actually sounded like (a picture unrecapturable), is at least a demonic excursion comparable in intensity, scale, and power of suggestion.
Suk has performed the Dante Sonata for more than three decades. He long ago absorbed the notes and put the score behind him. If he goes his own way, such Liszt instructions as “lamentoso” and “disperato” and “quasi improvisato” are honored as literally, as fearlessly, as is humanly possible. Where Liszt writes “lamentoso” and adds “tempo rubato e molto ritenuto,” the smoldering fires Suk conjures speak of emotion benumbed, of tragedy spent.
If Suk’s version of the Dante Sonata sounds improvisational, what about the role of actual improvisation in Liszt interpretation? In Liszt’s day, keyboard improvisations were commonplace. No less than his contemporaries, Liszt would extemporaneously “prelude” before pieces, modulating to a new key, setting a new mood. And his recitals might climax with improvisations on themes supplied by the audience.
In fact, before 1900, nearly every pianist of consequence was also a composer and/or conductor. (Liszt excelled in all three capacities.) Many composer/pianists, blending the creative with the recreative, were improvisers. Even more were transcribers – adapting for the keyboard music by others intended for other media. The recently unearthed “Block cylinders” singularly document turn-of-the-century performance practice in Russia. Rendering a waltz and two mazurkas by Chopin on February 12, 1895, the pianist/composer Paul Pabst produces a trio of hybrids, half-Chopin, half-Pabst. Are they improvisations or transcriptions? It hardly matters – these are performances about personality and spontaneity.
In the case of Liszt, his huge output of transcriptions and paraphrases includes some of his most inspired compositions. The Reminiscences de “Don Juan” is no potpourri, but an incisive personal impression of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Liszt’s Schubert and Wagner transcriptions – a labor of love – are poetic and virtuosic in equal measure.
In retrospect, the performance specialist was a twentieth century anomaly. Already, in our early twenty-first century, pianists and violinists are everywhere “crossing over” into conducting; and some are improvising and composing as in Liszt’s day and before.
The performance specialists preached “fidelity” to the score. This typically meant literal adherence to a scholarly “urtext.” But their notion of the performer’s function cannot be regarded as absolute. It arose in the early twentieth century in reaction to Romantic license. In Germany, textual fidelity took a particularly virulent form, infused with the dour Weimar aesthetics of “Neue Sachlichkeit” – “new objectivity.” For a pianist like Rudolf Serkin (who became greatly influential in the United States as a pedagogue), improvisation and transcription were mutually anathema. Nor did Serkin compose cadenzas, after the fashion of some (a minority) of his contemporaries. It is no coincidence that a pianist so oriented should have shunned Liszt.
Previous generations of performers had prioritized their own music, or the music of their own time. The performance specialist prioritized the music of dead European masters. In this narrative, Liszt was exceptional. Few other pianists of his time (Liszt’s dates are 1811 to 1886) were so linked to earlier composers. He performed sonatas by Scarlatti, suites by Handel, and Bach’s Goldberg Variations. His Beethoven repertoire included the Diabelli Variations and at least nine piano sonatas, including the final four. He made Schubert’s music a cause (albeit mainly in transcription). His concerto repertoire included Bach, Beethoven, Hummel, Moscheles, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Henselt, and Weber. It is tantalizing to speculate what these performances sounded like in terms of style. The twentieth century performance specialists were specialists in interpretation – they distinguished between Baroque, Classical, and Romantic; between French, German, and Russian. To what degree did Liszt? Here is Richard Wagner, in his famous essay “On Conducting” (1869), railing against the reticence and “fear of exaggeration” governing Mendelssohn’s “Leipzig school”:
“For a long time I earnestly wished to meet with someone who could play [Beethoven’s] great Sonata in B-flat (Op. 109) [the Hammerklavier] as it should be played. At length my wish was gratified – but by a person who came from a camp wherein those [Leipzig] doctrines do not prevail. Franz Liszt also gratified my longing to hear Bach. No doubt Bach has been assiduously cultivated by Liszt’s opponents; they esteem Bach for teaching purposes, since a smooth and mild manner of execution apparently accords better with his music than “modern effect,” or Beethovenian strenuousness.
“I once asked one of the best-reputed older musicians . . . to play the eighth Prelude and Fugue from the first part of the Well-Tempered Klavier (E-flat minor), a piece which has always had a magical attraction for me. He very kindly complied, and I must confess that I have rarely been so much taken by surprise. Certainly, there was not trace here of somber German gothicism and all that old-fashioned stuff; under the hands of my friend, the piece ran along the keyboard with a degree of “Greek serenity” that left me at a loss whither to turn; . . . This singular performance still tingled in my ears, when at length I begged Liszt for once to cleanse my musical soul of the painful impression; he played the fourth Prelude and Fugue (C-sharp minor). Now, I knew what to expect from Liszt at the piano. But I had not expected anything like what I came to hear from Bach, though I had studied him well; I saw how study is eclipsed by genius.”
Did Liszt add notes to Bach’s prelude and fugue? Very likely. From Liszt’s pupil Carl Lachmund, we know that Liszt played a Handel fugue “thundering the ending in octaves.” From Liszt’s pupil Alexander Siloti, we know Liszt’s response to Siloti’s alterations in the Fourteenth Hungarian Rhapsody:
“After I had played it he said: ‘I not only acquiesce in, but thoroughly approve of what you have done, in proof whereof I give you my permission to make any alterations and omissions you wish – and this at any time, even after I am gone; for I know that what you consider necessary will not be detrimental to the music – indeed you may say in such cases that it is as I wished it.'”
We also know that Mendelssohn complained of Liszt’s textural alternations, and that the violinist Joseph Joachim testified that in chamber music List would embellish the keyboard parts. And we know what kinds of Mozart and Beethoven performances Wagner preferred – he describes them in detail in “On Conducting.” Wagner liked performances we might term “Wagnerian,” or at the very least “Romantic.”
The Wagnerian ethos of interpretation defined in “On Conducting” – seeking fidelity to the “spirit,” not the letter – was in the twentieth century upheld by such artists as the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler and the pianist Edwin Fischer. In their writings, they condemned a dessicated or pedantic literalism – an exaggerated obeisance to false notions of “tradition” and “style” — much as Wagner did. Fischer’s Mozart, seeking turbid depths, is fearlessly expressive; it eschews “perfection.” Furtwängler’s oceanic Beethoven’s Ninth is “Wagnerian.” It is no accident that these performers were not performance specialists. Both also composed. Furtwängler also played the piano. Fischer also conducted.
The kind of fidelity espoused by a Fischer or Furtwängler trusted subjective impressions. Such impressions might be physical or programmatic. Nineteenth century composers had them all the time. So did nineteenth century performers – even those as “sober” and intellectual” as Hans von Bülow (who studied with Liszt and became his son-in-law). Bülow had a program for each of Chopin’s 24 Preludes. Here he is, for instance, on No. 10 in C-sharp minor:
“A night moth is flying around the room – there! It has suddenly hidden itself (the sustained G-sharp); only its wings twitch a little. In a moment it takes flight anew an again settles down in darkness – its wings flutter (trill in the left hand). This happens several times, but at the last, just as the wings begin to quiver again, the busybody who lives in the room aims a stroke at the poor insect. It twitches once . . . and dies.”
It mattered not to Bülow, surely, whether Chopin had a night-moth in mind when he composed his C-sharp minor Prelude; Bülow’s act of interpretation was vitally supported by an act of imagination.
In the case of Liszt, it is obviously worth inquiring to what degree his music may be experienced as programmatic. According to Claudio Arrau, “it was taken for granted by Liszt’s pupils” – including Arrau’s teacher Krause – that the B minor Sonata embodied a Faustian scenario, with Faust, Mephistopheles, and Gretchen all playing their parts. Arrau also testified that it was “well-known in Liszt’s circle” that Liszt’s B minor Ballade told the story of Hero and Leander. In the latter case, the narrative references Arrau adduced are so plausibly detailed as to be indisputable. (Cf. my AConversations with Arrau.)
I can remember a time – the 1960s – when the Liszt Sonata as not often played or recorded, and Liszt was held in far lower repute than today. By the late 1970s (when I regularly attended piano recitals as a New York Times critic), Liszt’s sonata was played as frequently as anything by Beethoven or Chopin (I tallied the repertoire at New York’s major halls), but little else by Liszt was regularly heard. In particular, the transcriptions were shunned. Today, transcriptions are back in fashion – pianists both play and compose them.
The complete musician in Liszt was and is a harbinger.

an ArtsJournal blog