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CLASSICAL MUSIC : CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Franz Liszt doesn't get the party he merits

The great composer didn't get quite the birthday celebration he deserved in the concert hall, but new recordings prove a gift.

December 11, 2011|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC
  • Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt

Lang Lang's latest CD, one of many releases celebrating the 200th anniversary of Franz Liszt's birth on Oct. 22, 1811, is titled "Liszt, My Piano Hero." Of course Liszt would be a hero of the flamboyant Lang Lang. Liszt was said to have been the greatest keyboard virtuoso the world had ever known -- and the most showy.

An 1842 caricature of the dashing Hungarian at the piano on stage in Berlin shows him as clearly the prototype for the modern rock star. With his left hand on the keys, he is waving to his mostly female audience with his right. The women sway, swoon, drink wine, blush, push close to the stage, fling flowers and examine through opera glasses every inch of the long-haired and leonine Liszt. The atmosphere is as sexually charged as a Beatles concert a century-and-a-quarter later, when a small wave from Paul was all it took to arouse hysterical screams from teenage girls.

Has anyone ever called Liszt the first feminist? Perhaps he was that too. He helped liberate 19th century women by tempting them to flout social convention, making frank public expressions of female sexuality fashionable. "Lisztomania" was the term the German poet Heinrich Heine coined at the time for this mass hysteria. Shocked by such displays, medical men investigated what they believed must be an underlying pathology infecting these ladies.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, December 13, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Franz Liszt: In a Critic's Notebook called "Liszt at 200" in the Dec. 11 Arts and Books section, the 200th anniversaries of the birth of Wagner and Verdi were incorrectly described as the 150th, and the name of soprano Diana Damrau was misspelled as Danna Damrau. Also, "Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses" was misspelled as "Harmonies Poetiques et Relgieuses."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, December 18, 2011 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Franz List: In a Dec. 11 Critic's Notebook called "Liszt at 200," the 200th anniversaries of the birth of Wagner and Verdi were incorrectly described as being the 150th, and the name of soprano Diana Damrau was misspelled as Danna Damrau. And "Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses" was misspelled as "Harmonies Poetiques et Relgieuses."

Lisztomania alone might have provided the classical music community with a terrific opportunity on this anniversary year to add a little context to issues that intrigue and trouble 21st century culture.

But there's plenty more: Liszt's calling as a sex idol was but one aspect, and a relatively brief one, of perhaps the most extraordinary career in all music. He retired from the concert stage at 35 and lived 40 more years (which also makes this year the 125th anniversary of his death), devoting himself to composition and eventually the church. The first volume of Alan Walker's monumental biography of Liszt is titled "The Virtuoso Years: 1811-1847." Two more incident-packed volumes, nearly another 1,300 pages, follow.

And yet the Liszt year was, if not entirely Liszt-less, certainly listless. It left us with several welcome recordings, for which Christmas shoppers can rejoice. But Liszt's neglected music, a vast cache of treasures, remains neglected -- including some particularly fine and little-known Christmas music (such as the oratorio "Christus"), which will remain little known this Christmas. Significant Liszt performances were scant in these parts this year, as they were in most places outside of Budapest or Raiding (Liszt's Hungarian birthplace, now in Austria).

What did turn up, moreover, tended to be the same old, same old. At the Palace of Arts, Budapest's major concert hall, during the so-called World Liszt Day (the world here being relegated mainly to Eastern Europe), the big event was a concert of his two piano concertos, Liszt chestnuts both.

The usually resourceful Los Angeles Philharmonic all but wrote Liszt off. Summer at the Hollywood Bowl brought the potboiler "Les Preludes." The Piano Concerto No. 2 is coming up next month. Even Lang Lang let us down. Two weeks after the composer's 200th birthday, the Chinese pianist relegated Liszt to flashy encores in a Walt Disney Concert Hall recital.

The Philharmonic Society in Orange County did the most locally, bringing in the Canadian pianist Louis Lortie in January to play all three parts of Liszt's epic piano cycle "Annees de Pelerinage" (Years of Pilgrimage) and inviting Alan Walker to lecture on Liszt. The feisty Jacaranda new and unusual music series in Santa Monica mounted a rare performance of Liszt's visionary late choral work, "Via Crucis." The Hungarian organist Laszlo Fassang played Liszt's way-out "Ad Nos Ad Salutarem" as part of his Disney organ recital at Disney last month.

But that was pretty much it for the Liszt year in Southern California. You would never have known that both Pacific Symphony music director Carl St.Clair and Los Angeles Opera music director James Conlon have made notable recordings of Liszt's neglected oratorios.

It has, furthermore, been a year without major additions to the Liszt literature, without new Liszt films or documentaries or reissues of old ones. You can seek in vain for domestic DVDs of the classic 1960 "Song Without End" -- in which Dirk Bogarde, looking like a cross between Van Cliburn and Elvis, plays Liszt -- or Ken Russell's "Lisztomania," starring Roger Daltrey.

The Mahler and Chopin years (2010 was the respective 150th and 200th anniversaries of their births) were huge. The music world is gearing up the 150th birthdays of Wagner and Verdi in 2013. So why so little Liszt? Could it be precisely because in adding context to the issues that intrigue and trouble 21st century culture, Liszt makes us nervous? He was what we no longer expect to encounter, a blatant showman with substance.

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