Explore The Music
(Click the names below to expand info.)
Letter from the Director
It gives me great pleasure to welcome back Garrick Ohlsson to the stage of 92nd Street Y. Three years ago, he gave us a wonderfully multi-faceted portrait of Alexander Scriabin, and I cannot wait to hear “his own” Franz Liszt—complex, interesting, intriguing, deep, just like Garrick Ohlsson himself.
As Mr. Ohlsson always leaves us with a desire for more excellent music, you may want to return tomorrow night for the final concert of the series Will to Create, Will to Live: The Music of Terezín with Israeli-American pianist Shai Wosner and Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair. The first half alternates between selections from Mahler’s song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn and piano pieces by Debussy written during World War I. Then Mr. Wosner and Mr. Holzmair will present Viktor Ullmann’s rarely-performed work for speaker and piano, Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke (The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke) , with text by Rainer Maria Rilke.
Two very different concerts, two days in a row—but both profound experiences and both with wonderful artists. Enjoy this afternoon, join us tomorrow and join us often. We love seeing you here.
Back to Top
Director of Concert and Literary Programming
92nd Street Y
Garrick Ohlsson, piano
Since his triumph as winner of the 1970 Chopin International Piano Competition, pianist Garrick Ohlsson has established himself as a musician of magisterial interpretation and technical prowess around the world. Long regarded as one of the world’s leading exponents of the music of Frederic Chopin, Mr. Ohlsson commands an enormous repertoire; he has more than 80 concertos at his command, ranging from Haydn and Mozart to works of the 21st century.
Last season, as he began his celebration of the bicentenary of Chopin’s birth, Mr. Ohlsson presented a series of all-Chopin recital programs in Seattle, Berkeley, La Jolla and New York at Lincoln Center. In conjunction with that project, a documentary, The Art of Chopin, featuring Mr. Ohlsson, was co-produced by Polish, French, British and Chinese television and released in autumn 2010. This season, Mr. Ohlsson is giving all-Liszt recitals in Chicago, Hong Kong and London, as well as here at 92nd Street Y.
Of his other 2011/12 engagements, next month Mr. Ohlsson will embark on a tour of 12 concerts across the US with Poland’s Wrocław Philharmonic, presenting works of Chopin and Beethoven. He opened the Indianapolis Symphony’s concert season and appeared with the Atlanta Symphony at Carnegie Hall in November. This coming weekend, he returns to the Nashville Symphony, and his upcoming engagements include the New York Philharmonic and the Indianapolis and San Francisco symphonies, where he is a beloved regular. His international tours include concerts in France, England, Italy, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan.
Mr. Ohlsson is an avid chamber musician who has collaborated with the Cleveland, Emerson, Takacs and Tokyo string quartets, among other ensembles. Together with violinist Jorja Fleezanis and cellist Michael Grebanier, he is a founding member of the San Francisco-based FOG Trio. A prolific recording artist, Mr. Ohlsson can be heard on the Arabesque, RCA Victor Red Seal, Angel, Bridge, BMG, Delos, Hanssler, Nonesuch, Telarc and Virgin Classics labels. Last February, he released an all-Liszt disc for Bridge Records, and his 10-disc set of the complete Beethoven sonatas for Bridge is now complete and has garnered considerable critical praise, including a Grammy Award for vol. 3. In fall 2008, the English label Hyperion rereleased his 16-disc set of the complete works of Chopin and recently released a disc of the complete Brahms piano variations and a two-disc set of Carl Maria von Weber’s four piano sonatas.
A native of White Plains, NY, Mr. Ohlsson began his piano studies at the age of 8 and entered The Juilliard School at age 13. In 1994, Mr. Ohlsson was awarded the Avery Fisher Prize, and in 1998, he received the University Musical Society Distinguished Artist Award in Ann Arbor, MI.
Back to Top
Introduction on FRANZ LISZT
Born Raiding, Hungary, October 22, 1811;
died Bayreuth, July 31, 1886
Franz Liszt was indisputably the most dazzling piano virtuoso of his age, perhaps of all time. But even with this formidable reputation, the Liszt “myth” was grander still. His seemingly superhuman skill at the keyboard invited comparisons with the violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini—and comparable rumors of a devilish pact to account for their superior technique. Liszt is sometimes considered the first “rock star,” as his concert tours attracted female fans reported to have fainted at his appearance or fought over his gloves, locks of hair or discarded cigar stubs. Fuelling much of this “Lisztomania” was the belief that the legendary fire of exotic Hungarian blood coursed through Liszt’s veins.
This legend may have been somewhat exaggerated in its details, but it wasn’t really so far from the truth. There was probably no diabolical contract involved in the development of Liszt’s remarkable piano technique, but the comparison with Paganini—who directly inspired Liszt to become a virtuoso—was apt. And Liszt’s fans were indeed enthusiastic, bordering on hysterical, though perhaps less surreally so than depicted in Ken Russell’s 1975 movie Lisztomania.
Still, while it is technically true that Liszt was born in Hungary, it was little more than public relations “spin” for the composer to claim a native right to Magyar passion. Liszt was born of mixed
Hungarian-Austrian parentage in the German-speaking part of west Hungary that is now in Austria. He moved to Vienna, then Paris, before he was a teenager and reported later in life that he didn’t speak a word of Hungarian; French and German were his first languages.
But realizing that the Liszt myth was somewhat larger than life should not challenge his pre-eminent position. As one of the few major European composers whose career spanned the middle of the 19 th century, he represents a crucial link between early and late Romanticism, while effecting a rapprochement between the France of Berlioz, Meyerbeer and Chopin, and the post-Beethoven generation
of Germanic composers, including Schumann and (later) Wagner. He was the epicenter around which the European music establishment swirled. And then there is his own music—passionate, dramatic, deeply literary and at times ferociously difficult to perform.
Back to Top
BACH/LISZT: Fantasia and Fugue in G minor
Born Eisenach, March 21, 1685;
died Leipzig, July 28, 1750
Fantasia and Fugue in G minor
Composed c.1720, arranged c. 1869
Liszt’s respect for the music of the past was deeply felt and freely expressed. Nowhere is that more evident than in his works inspired by J. S. Bach. Liszt transcribed and arranged for piano more than a dozen works by Bach, most of them originally for organ, but including a handful of keyboard variations based on Bach’s cantatas.
There was undoubtedly an element of proselytizing on Bach’s behalf in these works, as piano arrangements in Liszt’s day were a principal means for promoting little-known composers and compositions. The Bach revival of the 19th century was still nascent when Liszt first transcribed some of Bach’s organ pieces in 1847.
Liszt wrote his piano arrangement of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G minor (the “Great”) around 1869. It’s not difficult to understand why he would be drawn to the combination of bombast and reflection found in the Fantasia—it was precisely the dramatic juxtaposition of opposing themes that generated so much of his own music. The playful four-voiced fugue that follows is rather conservative by comparison, but its structured virtuosity still resonated with Liszt nearly 150 years after Bach wrote it.
Back to Top
LISZT: Sonata in B minor
Composed during 1852-53; 30 minutes
It was during the late 1840s and early ‘50s that Liszt began to discover for himself the music of Franz Schubert. At first glance, the two composers could not have been more different—in nationality, temperament, manners, musical style, favored genres, even instruments of choice. And yet Liszt was one of Schubert’s most avid fans in the middle of the century. He arranged and orchestrated dozens of Schubert’s songs and dances, and he composed a series of nine piano waltzes (the Soirées de Vienne) based on Schubert. Even more noteworthy was Liszt’s 1851 arrangement for piano and orchestra of Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy, D. 760.
Schubert’s single-movement Fantasy toyed with Liszt’s creative imagination long after it was completed. It was a crucial transition between the elided movements of Beethoven’s sonatas and the single movement orchestral forms favored by Liszt himself. Working under this inspiration, Liszt published his Sonata in B minor in 1854, a work widely regarded as the summation of his career as a composer/pianist.
After its public premiere in 1857, Liszt’s Piano Sonata suffered through an inauspicious early reception before it was finally recognized the following century as a masterwork. Brahms reportedly fell asleep during a private performance by Liszt himself. Conservative critics at the premiere declared it a mockery of nature and logic, and worthy of derision. Only Liszt’s close friend Richard Wagner was enthusiastic, and wrote to Liszt in 1855 after hearing a private performance in London: “Your sonata is beautiful beyond expression, grand, graceful, profound, noble, sublime—just like you.”
Liszt’s Sonata is a one-movement synthesis of a traditional four-movement format. While retaining the customary changes in tempo and character typically found in a classical work, Liszt elides the sections into a much more expansive and unified Romantic statement, played (like Schubert’s Fantasy) without pause. In this hybrid form, Liszt has also overlaid the entire work with the features of an all-encompassing sonata form—a metasonata, if you like—with its own larger exposition, development and recapitulation of themes that transcends the work’s varied tempi. He regarded the Sonata’s primary musical motifs, all presented in the opening pages, as the “essential building blocks” out of which he could build an entire dramatic edifice. After their presentation, these thematic
protagonists battle fiercely, then relax, reflect, rise up again, but in the end fade into the same dark, descending scales that opened the sonata.
Back to Top
FRANZ LISZT: Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este from Années de pèlerinage, troisième année
Composed during 1877-82; 8 minutes
Early in his career, Liszt was known mainly as a travelling virtuoso performer, inciting the “Lisztomania” that cemented his popular reputation. While touring, he wrote many shorter piano works that were, as he explained, an attempt to “portray in music a few of my strongest sensations and most lively impressions” felt during these tours.
Later, Liszt collected and revised some of these character pieces into a series of two piano suites named Années de pèlerinage or Years of Pilgrimage, the title taken directly from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.
In 1883, nearly 30 years after the first and second suites were published, Liszt gathered seven more pieces together into a third Year of Pilgrimage. By this time, Liszt was far more contemplative and mystical than the young, exuberant performer of 50 years earlier. He begins and ends this Third Year with “prayers” for solo piano, but in between he includes a handful of pieces inspired by the Villa d’Este, an impressive Renaissance mansion in Tivoli, just outside Rome. Liszt was a frequent visitor to the villa, and like so many others was especially impressed by the remarkable fountains (called “jeux d’eau,” or “water games” in French), which had recently been restored to their original splendor. The play of water and light in Liszt’s evocation of the villa’s fountains is both a precursor of the water imagery found in piano works by Debussy and Ravel as well as an opportunity to revive some of the virtuoso figurations of his youth.
Back to Top
LISZT: Feux follets from Études d’exécution transcendante
Composed in 1851; 4 minutes
Liszt was constantly revising his own compositions even after they were published. This was the case with his famed Transcendental Études , which had their origins in a set of twelve relatively easy piano exercises written when he was only 15 years old. They were revised, and made much more difficult, in the Twelve Grand Studies , published (with added programmatic titles) in 1837, and then revised again as the Transcendental Études , published in 1852 and dedicated to Liszt’s piano teacher, Carl Czerny. Although these last revisions included some simplifications, the technical demands posed by the Transcendental Études remain especially formidable. The fifth study, Feux follets (or Will o’ the Wisps ) is one of the most technically challenging of the set, and yet the greater challenge is to master these difficulties so that the work’s impressionistic leggierissimo qualities appear effortless. The famed American pianist and author Abram Chasins once described this etude’s furtive whimsy as “angelic to hear and devilish to play.”
Back to Top
LISZT: Funérailles from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, second version
Composed in 1849; 12 minutes
Liszt took the title of his Harmonies poétiques et religieuses from an 1830 collection of poems by the French writer
Alphonse de Lamartine. This collection directly inspired a piano solo in 1834 that Liszt later included in a suite assembled under the same title during the 1840s. He then revised the suite between 1848 and 1853, and it is this revision that is most commonly performed today.
Funérailles (or Funerals ), perhaps the best-known work in the collection, was originally titled Magyar , but was revised and retitled in October 1849 following the execution of the Hungarian Prime Minister, Count Lajos Batthyany, on October 6, 1849. (It is occasionally claimed that Chopin’s death later that month also inspired
Liszt’s revision, but the composer himself refuted that claim.) Both a funeral march and a tribute to the heroic soul’s ability to transcend death, Furérailles blends profundity with virtuosity in a manner unsurpassed in Liszt’s oeuvre.
Back to Top
LISZT: Mephisto Waltz No. 1
Composed during 1856-61; 12 minutes
When Liszt composed his four Mephisto Waltzes between 1856 and 1885, he based them not on Goethe’s version of the Faust legend (which inspired his own Faust Symphony of 1857), but rather on a version by the Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau. All four waltzes were originally conceived for piano solo, though Liszt also orchestrated the first and second waltzes.
The first waltz took shape between 1856 and 1861, and it was published in 1862 in a solo version, a two-piano arrangement and an orchestral version. It is actually the second half of a musical diptych, preceded by a Night Procession in which Mephistopheles, disguised as a hunter, walks with Faust toward a group of villagers dancing at a wedding celebration. In the waltz that follows, Faust is especially attracted to one of the village girls, and Mephisto, playing the violin, entrances them all. Faust leads the girl away through the gardens and into the woods as the nightingale sings its love song. For the orchestral version, Liszt supplied an alternate, gentle ending more in keeping with Lenau’s story, but the original conclusion, heard in the solo piano version, is a rousing bravura climax.
Back to Top