Just how violent is the Totentanz by Franz Liszt (1811-1886)? And just how virtuosic is pianist Valentina Lisitsa? Well, back in 2010, Valentina was forced to cancel a Skaneateles Festival performance of the version for solo piano for fear that the instrument would end up “in bits and pieces”—and in the version for piano and orchestra (probably begun in 1847 and revised through the early 1860s), there’s that much more pressure on the player to project her voice. Yet the piece is no simple virtuoso vehicle. Indeed, it represents much of Liszt’s most radical rethinking of compositional techniques in the middle of the nineteenth century.
In some ways, Totentanz looks ahead to the twentieth century. Harmonies can be shocking. So, as Valentina points out, are “the orchestration and the way the piano is treated.” Formally, too, the work breaks with tradition. Although it begins as a simple theme and variations, with the fifth variation, about halfway through, the structure seems to dissolve into something more like a free fantasia.
At the same time, though, the music is strongly anchored in the past. It has its programmatic source in a fourteenth-century fresco (attributed at the time to Andrea di Cione di Arcangelo, familiarly known as Orcagna), and perhaps in Holbein etchings as well. The basic thematic material is ancient as well. Under the influence of his good friend Hector Berlioz, who had used the same theme in his Symphonie Fantastique, Liszt grounds his work in the Dies Irae, the plainchant from the Latin Requiem Mass used to describe the “day of wrath.” Then, too, Liszt alludes to stylistic procedures of pre-classical composers, especially Bach. This superimposition of the future and the past produces a kind of temporal disorientation—perfectly appropriate to a work reflecting the Day of Judgment.
Whatever you can say about Liszt, he was not stylistically uniform—and the Second Piano Concerto, written and revised over more or less the same span of time (1839-59), has an entirely different sound. It’s a far less virtuosic piece; and if the sharply angled Totentanz twists itself forward and backward out of the nineteenth century, the more lyrical Second Concerto is, in Valentina’s words, the “essence of the romantic concerto.” Still, they “have one thing in common, which might not strike most people: the piano is more like an obbligato instrument than a soloist. Yes, there are cadenzas—but when the Second Concerto opens, the piano doesn’t have the melody, it just has an accompaniment”; and as the piece moves on, the soloist “talks with the orchestra.” As a result, she says, “It’s a rather symphonic piece.” In fact, Liszt at first called it a Concerto Symphonique, a title he borrowed from his pupil Henry Charles Litolff. The Second Concerto is in a single movement with six sections, bound together by Liszt’s favored technique of “thematic transformation”—the presentation of the same basic material in a wide variety of forms with different colors, harmonies, and rhythms.
Liszt was the most prominent Hungarian composer of the nineteenth century, so it seems appropriate to complete the program with further music from Eastern Europe. To open the concert, we’re offering the Dances of Galánta, composed in 1933 to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic by Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodály (1882-1967). Kodály was a pioneering ethnomusicologist as well as a composer and pedagogue, and like Bartók, he used early recording technology (wax cylinders) to collect folk songs in the field. According to the composer, though, Dances of Galánta is based on Hungarian folk tunes and Gypsy melodies that he found in printed collections from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Rhapsodic in structure and gorgeously orchestrated in a way that sometimes evokes the Gypsy bands Kodály remembers from his early years, the work had a special sentimental value to the composer, who spent much of his childhood in Galánta.
There’s a different kind of sentimental overtone to the second half of tonight’s concert: the Symphony No. 8 in G by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (18411904) was the first symphony that tonight’s conductor Fabio Mechetti performed as assistant conductor with the Syracuse Symphony, an organization of which he later became Music Director for a decade. The Eighth was written in 1889, when Dvořák was at the height of his powers (and the height of his popularity, too, a popularity that soon found him lionized in America). The process of composition seems to have been untroubled. It took less than three months to complete, and the result is confident and optimistic. It’s Dvořák’s sunniest symphony, enriched by his prodigious melodic invention. You’d certainly never guess that within less than two months he’d be hard at work on his darkly poignant Requiem.
The Eighth Symphony complements the Kodály well, for while it doesn’t appear to quote any actual folk tunes, it does, as Fabio points out, have a “folksy” flavor—in fact, “it may be the most folksy of his symphonies.” It complements the Liszt, too, although more by contrast than by similarity. While Totentanz and the Second Concerto are clearly interpreters’ pieces, the Dvořák is best served when the performer steps back: “Of all his symphonies, it’s the most classical. It’s very simple, it’s very direct. The less you meddle with the piece, the better it will present itself.” Don’t assume, though, that its candor and geniality mute its exuberance—quite the contrary. The last movement, a theme and variations, is one of the most uplifting in the Dvořák canon—and certainly, the closing pages are as exciting as anything Dvořák wrote.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have comments or questions? Contact me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org