I am conducting Liszt for the very first time in my life. One of my early encounters with classical music is when I saw a Tom and Jerry cartoon with the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody #2 as the soundtrack. I really liked the piece with its drama and its energetic melodies. I had no idea what a rhapsody was at that time. I didn’t even know what Hungary was. Still, I tracked down the sheet music from one of the two sheet music stores we had in my small Western Pennsylvania home town. When I discovered how technically challenging the piece was, I also invested in a simplified version which was more within the range of my abilities at the time.
I ran into the Liszt Piano Concerto in E Flat for the first time in Boston in the 1970s when I heard the Boston Pops orchestra play the piece. It didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time, though I did very much enjoy the concert and my first experience with the Boston Pops in Symphony Hall. The rest of my largely negative impressions of Liszt came from a general dislike of Romantic music and of self-absorbed virtuosos specifically. Figures like Paganini and Liszt just seemed a bit over the top for me. During that period of my life, when I was much more opinionated than I am now, I found many musical things more interesting and focused on them instead.
Which brings us to 2012, when I had decided I did not want to program the Mozart G Minor Symphony for our spring concert. My selection to replace it was Beethoven’s First Symphony, but we had just done the third and two Beethoven symphonies in one year just seemed like too much of a good thing. When Stephen Lee, a really gifted young pianist, asked me if I would consider doing the Liszt, I decided to listen to the piece again for the first time in almost 30 years. I was quite surprised by it. We had recently done the Barber Violin Concerto, which is a stunning piece and there were a lot of things about the Liszt that reminded me of the Barber. There were four short movements, but it felt as though it had been conceived in a single vision. The piano and the orchestra felt connected in a unique way, just as the violin and the orchestra felt in the Barber. Melodies pass freely from soloist to individual players in the orchestra and back. The piano part was breathtaking. And in the end I was drawn to it for the very same reasons I was drawn to the Hungarian Rhapsody so many years ago. There is so much drama in the piece and it is real drama—not contrived or manipulated. There are fun little melodies that are full of energy and life. I decided we would do the piece.
When I started preparing the score is when I ran into some of its astonishing limitations—sloppy and inconsistent notation, rhythmic awkwardness, artless orchestration. The orchestra part made no sense on its own the way Beethoven’s concertos do. The lush and perfect orchestration of the Brahms piano concertos make the Liszt seem vacant by comparison. Even the Rachmaninoff piano concertos, which are every bit as virtuosic as the Liszt, seem to have a greater sense of orchestral integrity than the Liszt. Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Liszt were all celebrated pianists of their day, perhaps none more so than Liszt, yet the former three all achieved a greater balance and dialogue between piano and orchestra than did Liszt.
It was a conversation I had with my colleague Monica Verona over lunch that made me think a little differently about the Liszt. She advised me to think of the piece as having its own kind of integrity. “It is what it is,” she wisely pointed out. She’s right, of course. It simply makes no sense to judge a piece by what it isn’t. The piece is true to the vision of the composer.
The way it is composed for orchestra is unique. Ideas about orchestral coloration and timbers are less important to Liszt, because the orchestra is just more piano for him. Like those 3-dimensional chess games Mr. Spock used to play on Star Trek, Mr. Liszt has expanded the piano keyboard horizontally into the high strings and piccolo and vertically into the trombone and double basses. In those maddening moments in the fourth movement where it is devilishly difficult to coordinate the piano and the orchestra, one gets the impression that Liszt wanted the pianist to play all of those notes—both the orchestra’s and his own. Understanding that has helped me conquer my resistance to the piece and actually learn to enjoy it.
I can’t say that the orchestra shares my love and understanding of the piece just yet. There are just too many key changes and chromatic passages to inspire immediate appreciation. I do have faith that they too will come to see what Liszt is all about, just the way Tom and Jerry and I have.