A Concert in Commemoration of the Bicentenary of Birth of Franz Liszt

Venue: Concert Hall, Hong Kong City Hall
Date: 9 July, 2011 (Saturday) 8PM

The Quintessential Romantic

If Chopin was portrayed as the introverted poet with a patriotic heart and Schumann as the genius torn by unfulfilled promises of recognition, then Franz Liszt would be the archetype of the Romantic composer. By the time Liszt had reached his early twenties, he was adored as the rising star of the Parisian concert circuit. Simply put, Liszt had it all: the look, the talent and the connection among French elite.

Lizst’s daredevil temperament won him not only the appraisal of concert audiences, but also the popularity among ladies. In 1835, his affair with Countess Marie d’Agoult caused him to retreat from Paris to Switzerland and later Italy. Apart from a brief return to Paris to rival the piano virtuoso Sigismund Thalberg, Liszt embarked on a career as a touring virtuoso from 1839 until he took up the position of Kappellmeister of Grand Duke Carl Alexander at Weimar, a position which he held from 1847 until 1861.

The change from the vibrant lifestyle of an international celebrity to a more itinerant one was mirrored in his compositions. The programme of tonight’s concert corresponds to this transitional period in the composer’s life from 1835 to 1860.

The lesser known Grand Duo Concertante and the notoriously difficult Paganini etudes and were written in 1835 and 1838 respectively. Both works bore the distinctive imprint of Liszt piano writing. Liszt was also keen to show that he was equally apt in vocal genres. In fact, he began transcribing Schubert’s songs since 1837. By 1841, Liszt composed his first song “Die Lorelei” to the lyrics of Heinrich Heine. This was followed by four songs set to the poetry of Victor Hugo and other German lieder over the next nine years. Although Liszt was often dwarfed in the shadow of Schubert and Schumann, his audacious approach to song setting was unmatched. By the 1850s, Liszt had departed from the flamboyant style and experimented with more substantial works. The unique Concerto Pathétique, written in 1856 for two pianos, was a sister work among the B minor Sonata and the Faust Symphonie. At the same time, Liszt continued to revise his songs. In his letter to Bettine von Arnim in 1853, Liszt wrote that that “my early songs are mostly too sentimentally bloated and often excessively choked up in the accompaniments.” This perhaps explains why most of the songs composed in the 1840s were revised and alternative versions were made available. Liszt also lent new life to two of his three songs set to Petrarch’s sonnets. These two sonnets, no.47 (“Benedetto sia il giorno”) and no. 104 (“Pace non trovo”) were transcribed for the piano and included in the second book of his Années de Pèlerinage (“Years of Pilgrimage), published in 1858.


Concerto Pathetique for two pianos, S.258

Chau Lok-ping, piano
Chau Lok-ting, piano

Liszt’s Concerto Pathétique is a curious work for two reasons: despite its title, the work was written for two pianos alone (although an arrangement for solo piano and orchestra also exists). The description “pathétique”, instead of suggesting a general sense of sadness, bears a wide range of connotations. It is better understood as “embracing extreme emotions” which are “expressed in a passionate manner”. The work was written in 1856, dedicated to Frau Ingeborg von Bronsart. It was first published in 1866, and a revised edition was published later in 1884 by Hans von Bulow, who was the composer’s one-time son-in-law. The structure of the concerto corresponds roughly to an expansive sonata-form with a brief introduction. The first theme (E minor), indicated “patetico” recurs in the guise of a funeral march. The Chopinesque second theme (Andante sostenuto / D-flat major) is recapitulated before the grand finale (Allegro trionfante / E major).

Four French Songs on verses by Victor Hugo
S’il est un charmant gazon, S.284
Oh quand je dors, S.282 Comment, disaient-ils, S.276
Enfant, si j’etais roi, S.283

Amanda Li, soprano
Felix Suen, piano

Liszt’s original setting of the Hugo songs were made between the years 1842 and 1844. However, these songs were by no means considered as finished works by the composer. Over the next fifteen years, Liszt continued to revise them and a second version was made available. “S’il est un charmant gazon” and “Enfant, si j’etais roi” were both set in strophic form, which parallel to the structure and metaphors of the Hugo poetry. “Oh quand je dors” was dedicated to Mari d’Agoult, and the setting is perhaps closer to an operatic scena instead of the art song. “Comment, disaient-ils” exemplifies Liszt unique approach to songs, which was direct, succinct and highly effective.

Sonetto 47 del Petrarca
Sonetto 104 del Petrarca

Rachel Cheung, piano

The years between 1835 and 1839 were bittersweet for Liszt. Although he was forced to take leave from the concert circuit by his affair with Countess Marie d’Agoult, his sojourn in Switzerland and Italy proved to be blissful and lucrative at the same time. The result was the first two books of his “Years of Pilgrimage”, which were published in 1855 and 1858 respectively. The two Petrarch sonnets were found in the second book. In fact, these sonnets first appeared as a triology of songs. Sonnet no.47 is a celebration of the the joy of finding one’s soulmate, and the piano transcription remains faithful to the vocal original. Sonnet no.104 describes the torment of unrequited love. While the narrative is conveyed dramatically in the song, the piano version suggests a sense of resignation and chagrin.

Grand Duo Concertant for violin and piano, S.128

Selena Choi, Violin
Chau Lok-ting, piano

The Grand Duo Concertante was among the few solo instrumental pieces Liszt created for the violin. It was written in 1835, consisting of four variations based on a romance by M. Lafont de Marin. The introduction itself begins with a pensive violin solo over tremolos in the piano. It is contrasted by a more agitated middle section with gushing scales in the piano, which was an unmistakable signature of Liszt. A brief repose leads into the theme proper. The playful first variation features the solo violin, whereas the dreamy second variation belongs to the piano. The bucolic serenity of the third variation is followed by a Tarantella which highlights rapid-fire exchanges between the two instruments. The work concludes with a boisterous finale, which is marked Animato marziale.

Three Lieder on poems by Goethe and Heine
Du bist wie eine Blume (Heine), S.287
Vergiftet sind meine Lieder
Die Lorelei (Heine), S.369

Rao Lan, Soprano
Chau Lok-ping, piano

The three songs set to poetry by Heine were completed between 1841 and 1844. “Die Lorelei” was the earliest composition and the same poetry was set by Clara Schumann. Liszt’s approach the words in a highly picturesque manner, and the piano was largely responsible for evoking the image of the treacherous waters of the Rhine. “Du bist wie eine Blume” was set previously by Robert Schumann. Liszt let the melody floats over a drone like accompaniment, as if a fragile flower sways gently in the billowing wind. “Vergiftet sind meine Lieder”, with a short, emphatic phrases sung over pungent harmonic changes, succinctly expresses the bitterness of a jilted lover.

Six Grandes Etudes de Paganini, S.141
No.1 in G minor (“Tremolo”)
No.2 in E flat major (“Octave”)
No.3 in G sharp minor (“La Campenella”)
No.4 in E major (“Arpeggio”)
No.5 in Emajor (“La Chasses”)
No.6 in A minor (“Theme and variations”)

Rachel Cheung, piano

Liszt was fascinated by the virtuosic feats Paganini managed on the violin and he was keen on translating them into pianistic terms. Five out of the six etudes were based on excerpts of Paganini’s Twenty-four Caprices, Op.1. The exception of the set is no.3, which borrows the theme from the last movement of Paganini’s Violin Concerto in B minor. In Liszt’s hands, the violin technique was assimilated by means of chromatic sixths for alternating hands, scales in tenths, rapid double-octave and repeated-note passages. The etudes were first published in 1838 and revised in 1851. Both editions were dedicated to Clara Schumann, who was an established concert pianist on the same par as Liszt.

Programme notes provided by Jennifer To.


Programme Note

Please refer to the notes embedded in “Programme”.