Saturday, July 12, 2008

Two Generations of Virtuoso Piano Composition

The listing in SF Weekly for Daniel Glover's piano recital at the Old First Presbyterian Church in San Francisco last night read:

The pianist plays Romantic Russian brooders plus religious compositions by Liszt.

I am not sure how many members of the audience were actually drawn to the concert by that sentence. Personally, I felt it was better to view the program as a presentation of piano composition in transition, even if the earlier stage of that transition (the Liszt portion) constituted the second half of the evening. After all, viewed strictly along the timeline of history, Franz Liszt died in 1886, not that long after the births of the two Russian composers from the first half. Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in 1873, and Nicolai Medtner was born in 1880. Whether or not they were "brooders," Glover presented them to us in his program notes as members of the "Russian Triumvirate" (along with Alexander Scriabin, whose music was played as an encore). More important is that all of the compositions in the first half came from the early twentieth century, while the Liszt works were firmly settled in the middle of the nineteenth. Furthermore, the Liszt compositions were all written after he had retired (at the age of 35) from his career as a concert pianist; so they mark his own transition from the flamboyant rock-star-of-his-day performer to the more reflective soul who had gone so far as to take minor orders, thus earning the title of Abbé (hence the SF Weekly description of his compositions).

How reflective Liszt actually was will probably always be a matter of opinion. It is hard to tell how sincerely devout his Two Legends of 1863 ("St. Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds" and "St. Francis of Paola Walking on the Waters") actually are; but then the same can be said of just about any "religiously inspired" painting. As might be expected, the birds receive more attention than their Franciscan sermon; but, as a rule, sermons do not lend themselves to musical depiction. One might be cynical and observe that, at the end of the composition (presumably the end of the sermon), the birds have not changed very much; but, given Liszt's past reputation for excess, particularly when he was deliberately playing to the crowd, his grammar of embellishment for depicting those birds is far more subdued. So the focus of the music may well be less on the preaching itself than on the establishment of a communion when Francis comes into the presence of those birds. On the other hand the second Legend is far more dramatic, capturing the contrast between turbulent waves in a raging storm and the serenity of the "other Francis" walking on top of those waves, which may be viewed as another instance of a communion, this time between a holy man and the very forces of nature. Thus, the theme of communion could well have been the stuff of Liszt's reflections; and Glover's performance allowed this theme to emerge across both of the Legends, elevating them beyond two short works that others might dismiss as "mere" tone painting.

The Legends were followed by one movement ("Benediction of God in Solitude") from Liszt's earlier (1852) collection of Poetic and Religious Harmonies. This music was intended to invoke the spirit of meditation; but I fear that my own meditations were preoccupied with that word "solitude." Was this a depiction of a "solitary" God or a divine blessing of a solitary soul? Either way, the implication seemed to be one of communion between an individual mortal and "the" individual God, which contrasts with the broader scope of communion in the Legends. The structuring of this movement into three large sections was also puzzling. Then again, I am not in a particularly good position to appreciate Liszt's particular faith, although, to the extent that I can be capable of meditating on the mysteries of Catholicism, I tend to feel better served by the more meditative piano music of Erik Satie or the seven movements of the more overt Visions de L'Amen by Olivier Messiaen.

From a more secular point of view, this was also a time when Liszt applied his compositional talent to the transcription of opera music, particularly the works of his future son-in-law, Richard Wagner. The earliest (1859) of these efforts in the "Fantasy on Themes from Rienzi." In his notes for the Dover edition of the Liszt transcriptions, Charles Suttoni calls Rienzi "Wagner's first mature opera;" and it would probably be fair to call it the first opera the "sounds like Wagner." The Wikipedia entry for this opera tells you pretty much what you need to know about it:

Rienzi is Wagner's third completed opera, and is mostly written in a Grand Opera style. The first performance in Dresden was well received despite running over six hours (including intermissions). Later, Wagner experimented both with giving the opera over two evenings and making cuts for performance in a single evening.

Because of its atypical style, and its sheer length, Rienzi is rarely performed today, and has never been performed at the Bayreuth Festival. Wagner later saw the work as an embarrassment, but it remained one of his most successful until his death. An ingenious staging at the English National Opera in London, produced by Nicholas Hytner in the 1980s, placed the hero in the context of 20th century totalitarianism.

The opera concerns the life of Cola di Rienzi, a medieval Italian populist figure who succeeds in outwitting and then defeating the nobles and their followers and in raising the power of the people. Magnanimous at first, he is forced by events to crush the nobles' rebellion against the people's power, but popular opinion changes and even the Church, which has earlier urged him to assert himself, turns against him. In the end the populace burns the Capitol, in which Rienzi and a few adherents have made a last stand.

It may also be worth mentioning that, while one of the more reliable accounts of Rienzi can be found in Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Wagner wrote his own libretto for this opera based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel, Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes (which is not the source for the most famous Bulwer-Lytton quote, "It was a dark and stormy night")! I find this particularly ironic, since the only other composer I know who has drawn upon text by Bulwer-Lytton is Charles Ives!

Liszt's transcription is a relatively modest one (which, considering the length of Wagner's score, is a blessing). It is structured around only a few of the basic themes, two of which most of us know from the overture; and it does not go overboard (or at least very far overboard) with its embellishments. It does make a sharp contrast with his more religious work, but it also allowed Glover to bring his recital to a rousing conclusion.

Does it make sense to approach Rachmaninoff and Medtner by viewing them from "the other side of a transition" that began with Liszt? As a Conservatory student, Rachmaninoff was a pupil of Alexander Siloti, who, in turn, had studied under Liszt; and Liszt was part of his performing repertoire (although he does not receive much attention in the recordings Rachmaninoff made). On the other hand there seems to be less evidence of a "Liszt connection" for Medtner. Nevertheless, his Opus 31, Number1 "Improvisation" is a set of variations on a theme that abounds with harmonic ambiguities of a sort similar to those with which Liszt experimented towards the end of his life (but whose origins may best be traced to the "Chaos" prelude to Joseph Haydn's Die Schöpfung). Unfortunately, after stating the theme, Medtner immediately launches into an abundance of embellishments, which, at least to a first-time listener, tend to obscure all those ambiguities that make the theme so interesting.

Sadly, the problem here may not have resided strictly with Medtner's compositional technique. I was familiar with only one of the three compositions that Glover performed, the "Danza festiva," which had been recorded by Egon Petri in 1958. It did not take a lot of familiarity to realize that Glover's rushed approach to this composition pretty much deprived it on any dance-like qualities; but it was nice to have Petri as a point of reference to confirm that those qualities were there in the first place. Thus, the shortcomings of the Medtner portion of the program may have had more to do with Glover focusing so much on the notes as to miss the music than with Medtner's skills as a composer.

Rachmaninoff was represented by his second (Opus 36) piano sonata, composed in 1913 (four years after his "notorious" third piano concerto) and revised extensively in 1931. If the "monster status" of "Rocky 3" comes more from the cinema world than from Rachmaninoff's biography, the revision of the second sonata had to do with Rachmaninoff's own recognition of superfluity in the massive wash of notes he had composed. Ultimately, neither version satisfied Rachmaninoff, and eventually Vladimir Horowitz was granted permission to compile a performing version based on the best of both attempts. This is, for the most part, the version that Glover performed; and, while it has a clear sense of structure, that "massive wash of notes" is still there. On the other hand, if Glover had approached this work the same way he had approached the Medtner compositions, there may be more music in this sonata than made it to at least this listener's ears; but I still have to wonder whether or not, at some point towards the end of his life, Rachmaninoff may have just resigned himself to the problem that "the music just wasn't there" in this particular piece of work.

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