Jacob Greenberg

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Liszt and Coney Island

This weekend I'm meeting my mom and my brother's family in Dutchess County, where we'll be going to some of the Bard Summerscape concerts which this year are devoted to Liszt. My piano literature course this fall at Buffalo will be on Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms, and Liszt is the one of those three that I know the least well. I decided this summer to remedy that...and, although I knew it would happen somehow, I've fallen in love with a lot of the music. As a pianist one's experience of Liszt has so much to do with the conservatory--and it's poisonous, really, how hearing bad performances and seeing the music only through the prism of its technical demands can blind you to its beauty.

It's true that Liszt wasn't as great as Wagner, in whose chromatic thumbprint we can see a lot of Liszt--Wagner admitted as much. But so many of the pieces which I hadn't known before, like "Sursum Corda," the final piece from the Annees de Pelerinage, and also the hackneyed smaller pieces like the Liebestraume, have so much that's really glorious about them. I prefer interpretations like Rubinstein's which bring out the expressive poetry of the music but are tasteful in their rubato, organized while still spontaneous. Maurizio Pollini's performances of the late pieces like both of the "Lugubre Gondola" pieces and "Richard Wagner-Venezia" are extraordinarily dark and subdued.

One night in mid-July I took the B train from Atlantic Station down to Brighton Beach and walked over to Coney Island, drunk on the "Sursum Corda" and also listening to Rubinstein's "Mephisto Waltz" and "Valse Oubliee." The extravagance of the music and the boardwalk of Coney Island, whose appeal is all about nostalgia, made for a good combination. Riding the Wonder Wheel was really nice with the "Liebestraume" in my ears.