Recorded on 07/04/2006, uploaded on 01/13/2009
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
Franz Liszt was a man of contradictions. An extravagant virtuoso and womanizer, he was responsible for some of the most superficial displays of pianistic acrobatics ever written, yet at the same time he was also responsible for some of the most notable advances in the music of the 19th century. The father of children born out of wedlock, he was also known as a most generous philanthropist, and, at a late stage of his life, as a priest, and the resident composer of the Vatican.
The year 1849 was a significant one in Liszt's life: the death of Chopin left him with a strong sense of responsibility for the future of piano music. He withdrew from his concertizing career, and started focusing on composing works of the highest integrity and innovation. His sole piano sonata, completed in 1853, was one of his crowning achievements, and a work very dear to his heart. The piece, which was known by Liszt's circle of friends as having been inspired by Goethe's Faust, introduced an innovative formal design: although made up of four distinct movements (fast-slow-scherzo-fast), these movements flow from one another, and are interconnected by thematic and tonal commonalities. In fact, the formal concept of the Allegro-Sonata form, which usually applies to individual movements in a piece, is used here to shape the piece as a whole.
While maintaining this highly complex design, Liszt was also able to incorporate the most lyrical, romantic, sinister, and dramatic sentiments, truly worthy of a work inspired by Faust. The magnitude of his achievement is tremendous: this is a true Romantic sonata, a work that captures the essence of the Romantic era, without compromising the structural integrity so characteristic of the Classical sonata. Ron Regev
Courtesy of International Music Foundation.
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