The Liszt Concertos

2011

Pierre Boulez

Staatskapelle Berlin

Master of Illusion
2011 is Liszt year. The keyboard virtuoso and composer, who would have been two hundred years old on 22 Octo­ber, received a very special birthday present from two living artists who are themselves exceptional in more than one respect. First there is the composer and con­ductor Pierre Boulez, whose composition Le marteau sans maître is one of the central masterpieces of the 20th century and whose recordings, including those of works by Bartók, Wagner and Mahler, have won numer­ous awards. But with Liszt he was entering upon what for him was entirely new territory. And, second, there is the conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim who initially made a name for himself as a gifted interpreter of Beethoven and Mozart and who following an acclaimed Liszt recital at La Scala, Milan, in May 2007 has now made his first recording of Liszt’s two piano concertos. 
 
In the course of a tour that took them to five different towns and cities, Boulez and Barenboim set themselves the task of performing this unique tour de force – after all, both of these concertos are among the warhorses of the piano repertory, demanding from the soloist not only technical abilities of the very highest order but also tremendous physical strength. Accompanied by his own Berlin Staatskapelle, Barenboim exchanged the baton for the piano, and his place as conductor was taken by the eighty-six-year-old Boulez. The presence of two such distinguished musicians on the platform held out the promise of an altogether exceptional performance, a promise more than kept by the way in which these two outstanding artists worked together as colleagues, unconditionally placing their gifts in the service of the music, while the combination of an avant-garde com­poser and conductor known for his analytical thinking and unostentatious conducting style and Barenboim’s expressive and poetic playing ensured that the record­ing has an attraction all of its own. 
 
Barenboim gives two reasons for performing these two works back to back: “I wanted to present both con­certos together as they are so different. Although less frequently played than the first, the second concerto is no less of a masterpiece. The orchestral colours of its opening remind me of Wagner’s Lohengrin – and not just because they both begin in A major. And Liszt, like Wag­ner, was a master of chromaticism – and chromaticism means ambiguity. In a person, you wouldn’t think very much of ambiguity, but in the world of music it adds an extra richness and opens up a whole range of new pos­sibilities.” 
 
Both of Liszt’s piano concertos – and this is even more true of the first in E flat major than of the second in A major – impress the listener with their dazzling brilliance and highly virtuosic piano writing, and yet both are more than just bravura showpieces. Both demand of their interpreter a kind of oath of disclosure: is the pianist merely a brilliant technician? Or is he also a sensitive poet? Time and again rhapsodic ideas and lyrical melodies break through the pyrotechnics of the piano writing. 
 
Daniel Barenboim is in any case not interested in pure virtuosity, for soulful expression is more important to him than a high-wire act: “You first have to look at the concept of virtuosity, which means not just digital dexterity as we often understand it today. This is only one aspect of the idea. Virtuosity also means exploring the whole palette of colours that is part and parcel of piano playing. But this is very closely bound up with the whole nature of the piano, which is in fact primarily an uninteresting instrument, at least as far as its palette of colours is concerned. You can produce a sound from a key using an ashtray – it isn’t interesting and it isn’t beautiful, but at least it’s a sound. So the art of playing the piano is an illusion. It is precisely the neutrality of the piano that allows you to create the illusion of colour. And for me that is the real virtuosity – not just the con­trol of tempo and dynamics but also the millions of colours that you can create on the piano as a form of illusion.” 
 
The tour was an enormous success – at the concert at the Ruhr Piano Festival at the Essen Philharmonie, where the present live recording was made, the raptur­ous applause repeatedly brought the performers back onstage. And the critics, too, were impressed by the idea of teaming up Boulez and Barenboim. Writing about the concert in Berlin, the Tagesspiegel, for example, noted that they “laid bare the uniqueness of these works, avoiding every cliché and investing the evening with an exceptional degree of tension. Both in the A major Concerto and the E flat major Concerto Baren­boim externalized the lyricism to compelling effect. He believes passionately in the importance of the canta­bile line and places the work’s virtuosity in the service of this line in a spirit that is entirely worthy of Chopin. And on the podium Boulez reflects this rhapsodic approach with his perfectly balanced interplay between the monumental and the poetic elements.” For all its risks, this challenge represented not only a triumph for Liszt as a composer, but it also provided yet further evidence of the mastery of Boulez and Barenboim – not just as conductor and pianist but first and foremost as musicians. 
 
Tristan Wagner 
 
8/2011

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