Saturday, April 12, 2008

"Young Pianists Play Liszt"

The above is the title of an annual event sponsored by the San Francisco Chapter of the American Liszt Society in collaboration with the San Francisco Conservatory Preparatory Division. Over the last four years the "young pianists" have been Preparatory Division Conservatory students. However, this afternoon at the fifth annual of these events, there were two "guests;" and the second half of the concert was performed by Collegiate Division (as in "not quite so young") students. Any way you cut it, that makes for a lot of Franz Liszt's piano music.

When classical and jazz pianists talk to each other, the conversation often turns to parallels between Liszt and Art Tatum. Both were "undisputed heavyweight champion" masters of the keyboard in their day, not just for technical skill but for the way in which that skill was applied to elaborate and complex embellishments of otherwise simple melodic material. Each had a successor who both continued the line and pushed the envelope further: Ferruccio Busoni and Oscar Peterson, respectively. After that the mold for both lines was pretty much broken, and the respective genres headed into new directions.

I bring this up because even the most avid of jazz listeners often confessed that, where Tatum was involved, a little bit goes a long way. Once CDs came along and the prospect of many hours in little physical space let to a knew "cottage industry" of anthologizing the jazz masters, it became easier to appreciate the wisdom of those listeners. It was not that Tatum was not innovative in his embellishments; it was that he was so innovative that one's cognitive capacity was sated after only a few numbers.

However, Tatum had an advantage over Liszt. He could restrict the duration of a performance to the capacity of a single 78 RPM side. Liszt came from an age where such temporal constraints did not matter, which makes it no surprise that he was one of Richard Wagner's most avid champions! However, this means that Liszt could just go one exploring new embellishments, closer to the spirit of John Coltrane than that of Tatum; and therein lies the risk of trying to arrange an all-Liszt program. The good news is that the risk is somewhat abated by having multiple pianists who bring different ways of performing Liszt to the program. The bad news is that Liszt's excesses often play out in a single composition.

At this particular recital the good news was pretty good. Seven Preparatory and five Collegiate students each executed their respective shares of the program with a sense of their own personality, and we as listeners could appreciate the extent to which that personality grew in depth with the age of the performers. The other good news was that the "bad news" pieces, such as the "Tarantella" movement from the "Venezia e Napoli" supplement to the second of the Annés de Pèlerinage, were kept to a minimum. Furthermore, one of the "guest" students even seemed to have a keen sense of the overall architecture of "Les jeux d'eaux à la villa d'Este," from the third of the Annés de Pèlerinage. Thus, over the "long haul" of a two-hour recital, Liszt fared relatively well in this setting, making it a good opportunity to learn a thing or two about listening to him.

Still, without going into details as excessive as Liszt's embellishments, I should observe that the recital ended with a roaring performance of the "Totentanz" (with a second piano covering the orchestra accompaniment), the same composition that Louis Lortie performed with the San Francisco Symphony under Kurt Masur near the beginning of this season. Now while I would think nothing of sitting through several performances of Tristan und Isolde in a single season (and my wife and I were sorely tempted to return to the movie house for the "repeat broadcast" from the Metropolitan Opera), I wasn't sure I would be up to a second "Totentanz" in a single season (even if separated by about six months). However, if Masur and Lortie seemed to have endowed their performance with the spirit of Halloween, I had to credit the young woman from the Collegiate Division for performing in a gown that was straight from the closet of Morticia Addams. She recognized, as Lortie did, that, for a piece like this, satisfying all the demands of execution is not enough; one must also honor the spirit of the work. In this case that is the spirit of either Halloween or The Addams Family!

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