Liszt – Piano Concerto No. 1
Liszt – Piano Concerto No. 1

If you have ever attended a solo instrumental recital, you have fallen under the influence of Franz Liszt. That’s because it was Liszt who first had the audacity — or so it was viewed at the time by some critics — to perform entire concerts himself, thumbing his nose at the long-standing tradition of intermingling vocal, orchestral and solo music into the classical-era equivalent of musical variety shows. He even coined the term, “recital.”

If anyone had the standing to transform concert traditions in mid-19th century Europe, it was Franz Liszt, a Hungarian firebrand who was that era’s closest approximation to a modern-day rock star.

While Beethoven is generally credited with ushering in the Romantic era in music, it was Liszt who provided many of its most influential forms, techniques and concepts. He invented the so-called symphonic poem, and generally was guided more by emotion and narrative than by formal structure in the development of his musical ideas.

It didn’t hurt that his personal life was as colorful as his music.

“His life was a veritable pagan wilderness wherein flourished luxuriant legends of love affairs, illegitimate children, encounters with great figures of the period, and hairbreadth escapes from a variety of romantic murders,” Veinus wrote. “Unlike Wagner and Berlioz, Liszt never wrote the story of his life, for, as he casually remarked, he was too busy living it.”

Today, Liszt is best-known for his virtuoso piano music, which has, together with that of his Polish contemporary Frédéric Chopin, become a cornerstone of the classical keyboard repertoire. So it is no surprise that his piano concertos, of which there are two, hold a central place in the orchestral canon.

Liszt first started sketching the music for his First Concerto in the early 1830s and continued working on it, here and there, for more than a quarter century, spanning his most productive period of music-making.

Breaking with tradition, the concerto plays out in a single, almost uninterrupted cascade of ever-transforming ideas. However, with four distinct sections, it arguably best resembles a symphony in structure and musical heft. The first section sets the tone with a bold statement of the initial theme followed by a sudden shift in harmony. That initial theme recurs several times, each leading through a new musical portal before ultimately settling into a blissful reverie.

That leads, with only brief pause, to the gloriously placid second movement, one of Liszt’s most ravishingly beautiful bits of music. Then comes a dancing third movement in which the triangle plays a surprisingly central role, lending the music a glistening quality throughout.

The concerto ends with a muscular fourth movement in which the themes from previous movements return, tied together into what becomes a kind of ecstatic musical bottleneck at the end, with the piano sprinting through some of the most breathtakingly difficult music ever penned for the instrument.

Program notes provided by Joe Nickell

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