Bach at the Toy Store

Monday, November 7, 2011
0 Comments   0 comments.

J.S. Bach meets F.A.O. Schwartz

Great Liszt Performances from Classical New England

By Cathy Fuller   |   Thursday, October 20, 2011
1 Comments   1 comments.

Oct. 20

With the 200th anniversary of the birth of Franz Liszt coming up Oct. 22, now is a good time to reminisce about the great Liszt performances I've had the pleasure of hearing at Classical New England.

Liszt is still a misunderstood figure. He's often dismissed for being nothing but a flashy virtuoso, but that's not really a fair judgment. In a piano lesson with Liszt, a student was playing the famous A-flat Major Polonaise by Chopin. At the moment when the left hand begins its relentless march in octaves, Liszt burst out: "Do I care how fast you can play your octaves!? What I wish to hear is the canter of the horses of the Polish cavalry before they gather force and destroy the enemy!"

Why the thunderous reaction? Because Liszt deplored empty virtuosity. He was inspired by the communicative power of music, not by the deadening, hollow effect of technical facility on display. And he was determined to bring his students into his imaginative universe.

It's true that during his years of intensive concertizing (roughly 1839-1847), an emotional hysteria developed in Liszt's fans, and "Lisztomania" set in. But I'm more intrigued by the mesmerizing effect that Liszt seems to have had on his audiences. Biographer Alan Walker describes one scene in which Hector Berlioz and a small group of colleagues succumbed to Liszt's playing in a drawing room. The fire was nearly out and the lamplight was dying. Critic Ernest Legouvé accidentally turned the wick down instead of up and the room went nearly to black. Liszt began playing Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. It was too much for Berlioz, who couldn't control his emotions. The others could barely move.

Many accounts of Liszt's playing describe a strange magic, a hypnotizing focus. He wasn't presenting egotistical theatrics. He brought the audience to a new level of listening and put them, not him, on a higher plane. In such a state, listeners were given the chance to absorb his creations — new music that would belong more and more to the future, ultimately presaging the intricate coloristic effects of impressionism, and even evocative flirtations with atonality. His audiences also had a greater chance to absorb the works of composers he championed (Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata, for instance).

More astounding still is the fact that Liszt's gift for performance came with other unfathomable talents. He created the symphonic poem and the piano recital. He conducted, taught, transcribed and edited. His hundreds and hundreds of pieces reflect his love of life on Earth, his intimate experience with deep sadness and a fundamental yearning for God.

I'm happy that this year's focus on Liszt has encouraged a deeper look into the radical adventurer that he was. Here are some glimpses of Liszt's genius in piano performances captured by our Classical New England engineers here in Boston.

"Adelaïde" (Beethoven, arranged by Liszt)
Minsoo Sohn, piano

Liszt's devotion to Beethoven drove him to transcribe a huge number of works for solo piano so that more of the world could experience Beethoven's genius. The poem "Adelaïde" by Friedrich von Matthison features a text that yearns for an unattainable woman – a concept that resonated with Beethoven. Korean-born pianist Minsoo Sohn came to Boston to study with Russell Sherman at the New England Conservatory. He plays this transcription with the warm, singing sound Liszt was definitely after.

"My Joys" (Chopin, arranged by Liszt), and "Ave Maria" (Schubert, arranged by Liszt)
Marc-André Hamelin, piano

Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin grew up listening to Liszt's music. His father, an amateur pianist, had an abiding love for the captivating playing of the golden age pianists. "My Joys" is a gorgeous melody from the Six Polish Songs by Chopin. "Ave Maria" is an intricate elaboration of a Schubert song and presents interesting challenges. It's written on three staves with the tune in the middle, requiring the pianist to deploy some tricky fingerings to get a three-handed effect.

My Joys

Ave Maria

Spozalizio;  Petrarch Sonnet 47
Roberto Plano, piano

Liszt once expressed in a letter his love for Italy and its art, mentioning that "Raphael and Michelangelo helped me to better understand Mozart and Beethoven." "Sposalizio" (Marriage) was inspired by Raphael's serene painting "The Marriage of the Virgin," and the Sonnet springs from a beautiful love sonnet by Petrarch. Italian pianist Roberto Plano plays these homages to his own country with a sense of loving connection.


Petrarch Sonnet 47

Les jeaux d'eau
Gilles Vonsattel, piano

Swiss-born American pianist Gilles Vonsattel has what it takes to make the piano sparkle and sing. Writer Alan Walker reminds us that Liszt's fountains (jeux d'eaux) are spiritual: "Liszt turned his streaming fountains into mystical symbols, associating them with the verse from the Gospel According to St. John (4:14) which he quotes in the score: '... the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.'"

Ballade No. 2
Antonio Pompa-Baldi, piano

Liszt wrote this Ballade shortly after finishing the Sonata in B minor. Its many moods are held together through the transformation of a single gesture. Italian pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi plays with tremendous strength and focus. He creates enormous contrast between what is ominous and what is sunny in Liszt's dramatic world. And like Liszt, Pompa-Baldi is a sought-after teacher, attracting talented students to the Cleveland Institute of Music and to master classes around the world.

Trauervorspiel und Trauermarsch
Cyprien Katsaris, piano

If you've never heard this Funeral Prelude and Funeral March, prepare yourself! Liszt's late pieces that contemplate death can have a terrifying modernity. The unique French-Cypriot pianist/composer/teacher Cyprien Katsaris was making his Boston recital debut and spent hours in our studios unleashing stories and music of all kinds. Like Liszt, Katsaris is blessed with a mind-boggling mastery of the keyboard.

"You Are Drawn Into Being A Co-Conspirator..."

By Cathy Fuller   |   Friday, October 29, 2010
0 Comments   0 comments.

Fortepianist and Harvard scholar Robert Levin is playing with the Handel and Haydn Society this weekend under conductor Bernard Labadie.  Several years ago at Worcester’s beautiful Mechanics Hall I was asked to launch questions at Bob about Mozart.  His responses were for inclusion on a DVD which accompanies his brilliant Deutsche Harmonia Mundi recording of Mozart Sonatas. Well, it doesn’t take much launching to animate Robert Levin!  His intimate knowledge of Mozart is so startling and compelling, it’s as if he knew the man personally.  And it’s miraculous to hear Robert tearing into Mozart’s musical thinking.  All that plus a thrilling education on the wonders of the fortepianos of Mozart’s time.

The responses are posted in three parts.  The third one brings you directly into Mozart’s mind:

Oct. 15: Of All the Things I’ve Lost....

By Laura Carlo   |   Thursday, October 14, 2010
0 Comments   0 comments.

I lose things. Often. I put something down, someone gets my attention and pulls me away from my task, then I’ll likely go off and do something else entirely, and finally I realize I can’t find the original item and I waste an unbelievable amount of time trying to retrace my steps. If I were to tell you this is something new, you’d say, well, it’s a function of age.  The sadder truth is...I’ve done this my whole life. My mother used to say she was grateful my head was attached to my neck or else I’d forget it somewhere. It got so bad that I went to a major bookstore in my area and bought the biggest book on shelf about “how to get yourself organized.” I know I brought it home....I just haven’t been able to find it since. So much for self help. In the 7:00 hour today I’m playing Beethoven’s Rondo a capriccio, Op. 129 with the brilliant pianist Evgeny Kissin (see below!). I used to think that piece,  which has the nickname “Rage Over a Lost Penny,” was about the anger felt at losing the penny, a veritable fortune in Beethoven’s day. (And depending on which one you choose, could even be pretty valuable today!)  Now I think it means the rage over the time wasted having to look for the thing misplaced. I’ve always said the thing I hate the most is “waste” of any kind: Wasted food is a sin, wasted opportunity is a crime, wasted time... is both.

Let’s not waste any time. We can look forward to this rainy day as a chance to clean out closets and drawers and get organized, once and for all. You go first.  

By the way, one of my favorite bumper stickers reads: “Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.” Happy Friday! (It is Friday, isn’t it?)

Oct. 13: Lang Lang

By Laura Carlo   |   Tuesday, October 12, 2010
0 Comments   0 comments.

There are so many exceptional young pianists right now that if you are as big a piano fan as I am it’s like an avalanche of riches. Their training is top-notch and maybe that’s part of the problem. There are so many, so good in their own ways, and yet what makes one stand out above another.  Well, one pianist has captured my attention lately, not just for his performance ability but also for his heartfelt commitment  to young children wanting to study piano.  World-renowned pianist Lang Lang released a CD in late August of his concert recorded and filmed “live” in Vienna’s legendary Musikverein concert hall.


I’ve already played a cut for you from this CD... but it occurred to me that since it was released in the summer when so many folks are still away enjoying the last bits of vacation time you might not have heard about it. The concert program and resulting CD features Lang Lang’s first-ever recording of two Beethoven sonatas, the Appassionata and the youthful Sonata Op. 2 No. 3,  plus impressionistic music by Isaac Albeniz  (Book 1 of Iberia) and finally, to help celebrate the Chopin Bicentennial, three of his most popular pieces. Born in China Lang Lang began playing the piano at age 3 and had already won the Shenyang Competition and given his first recital by 5. He shot to world-wide fame at 17 when he triumphed in the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the “Gala of the Century.”  He was listed by TIME magazine in 2009 among the “100 Most Influential People in the World,” played at the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and has even founded the “Lang Lang International Music Foundation” with the aim of identifying and supporting exceptionally gifted students between the ages of 6 and 10. (See a video here.)   Ever since he shot to fame China has been in the grip of a piano-learning frenzy known as the “Lang Lang Effect” and Steinway has recognized his popularity with children by creating five versions of the “Lang Lang Steinway,” designed for early music education. In recognition of his commitment to young people he was made a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF in 2004. Now 28, Lang Lang has played sold-out recitals all around the world and this year and into next he is touring with the new album’s program. His official website,, only lists concerts through December...and none of them mention Boston, but if you don’t yet have plans for New Year’s Eve he’ll be at Avery Fisher Hall in NYC. Listen this morning for more music from  “Lang Lang Live in Vienna....”

Oct. 11: Till Fellner

By Brian McCreath   |   Friday, October 8, 2010
0 Comments   0 comments.

Till Fellner, the Austrian pianist, is returning to Boston for the Boston Conservatory's superb Piano Masters Series, and there was a mention of him as well last week in an article about his teacher, Alfred Brendel, in the Boston Globe.  He's known for a pristine approach that, for many, directly channels the essence of a composer's music.  In fact, that's the reaction, almost verbatim, of a friend of mine when he heard this performance by Till Fellner in our Fraser Performance Studio.  Enjoy, and be sure to tune in every Thursday evening at 7pm for Live from Fraser, or just enjoy each episode on demand.  (Photo:  Monika Groser)

About the Authors
Brian McCreath Brian McCreath


Support for WGBH is provided by:
Become a WGBH sponsor


You are on page 2 of 3   |