Recorded on 03/07/2006, uploaded on 01/18/2009
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
Considered to be Liszt’s greatest composition for the piano, the colossal Sonata in B minor was also a rare large-scale example of absolute music among the otherwise programmatic works of the rest of his oeuvre. Some scholars have attempted to assign such a programme to the work, such as the Faust legend (which Liszt was particularly attracted to) or even an autobiographical one. Yet, such fantasies are nothing more than speculation, affirming Eduard Hanslick’s idea that the language of music is not specific enough to effectively convey programmatic elements, and even more so without direction from the composer himself.
The Sonata is furthermore an extremely rare example of Liszt’s use of sonata form, a symbol of the Classical tradition which he no doubt revered though he, and others of the New German School, purposefully distanced themselves from. Only two other works in Liszt’s output can be said to be in sonata form—the Faust and Dante Symphonies. However, the sonata form of the B minor Sonata is reinterpreted in a unique way and has long been the subject of debate and analysis. An expansive design, eloquently demonstrating the great expanses the form is capable of containing, Liszt superimposes his sonata form onto the four-movement design of a traditional sonata, with each movement more or less aligning themselves with the particular divisions of the sonata form. The first movement, corresponding to the exposition, announces the basic motives of the entire piece. These motives are transformed and developed throughout the two middle movements. During this development, Liszt even indulges in a fugal treatment of one of the themes in the Scherzo third movement, an academic practice that seems quite foreign to the nature of his music. Finally, the motives are recapitulated in the last movement.
Completed in 1853, but begun as early as 1849, the Sonata in B minor received a rather cool reception. Obviously, it won the whole-hearted approval of like-minded composers such as Richard Wagner. However, it was attacked by such stalwarts of absolute music as Eduard Hanslick, Johannes Brahms, and Anton Rubenstein, despite the work’s attempt to “reach across the aisle” as it were. The Sonata’s technical demands also hampered its acceptance. Nevertheless, by the early part of the 20th century, Liszt’s Sonata had gained wide acceptance and became established as one of his greatest composition. Joseph DuBose
This sonata is Wagnerian and orchestral in its scope-a monumental work, and one of the most important in the piano literature. Written in 1852-53, Liszt here brought together four separate movements into one unified work. The Faustian legend is suggested with its many struggles with the devil, finally ending peacefully. The sonata form structure is superimposed on the work, but the exact beginnings and endings of the movements have long been debated. This work demands virtuoso finger technique, rapid octaves, superb chord playing, and a full tone in the lyrical sections.
There are basically four motives which emerge early in the piece. The beginning descending motive in octaves is followed by a more jagged motive also in octaves. The third motive, first marked marcato, features four repeated notes. The fourth motive, first marked grandioso, is slow with heavy blocked chords.
These four motives permeate the entire sonata, and all go through many transformations-variations in tempo, trills, runs, marches, recitatives, lyrical songs, octaves, perpetual motion, and others. Of special interest is the polyphonic treatment of two of the motives combined, starting in the left hand alone. Finally, the work ends calmly and peacefully, with final echoes of the motives whispered softly.
(Program notes by Karen Knowlton)
Courtesy of International Music Foundation.
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