horizontal line

If anyone needs reminding that Liszt’s Sonata in B minor is a landmark in the history of music and a spiritual odyssey of profound depth, they should turn to Barbara Nissman’s DVD masterclass and recital. On the first of her two discs she traces, or rather relishes, the twists and turns of Liszt’s extraordinary life. And if the manner is occasionally over-emphatic, her enthusiasm and insight are infectious. The facts she relates may be familiar, but her commentary is starred with a special sense of musical and, above all, human richness. She is quick to point out that even when Liszt’s religious faith was tested to near breaking point, he remained steadfast and stoic in a hailstorm of controversy and incomprehension.

More than any composer, perhaps, Liszt was subject to vagaries of fortune, and like all true originals or pioneers he paid a heavy price, finding himself placed beside his beloved Wagner in opposition to the conservative camp represented primarily by Schumann and Mendelssohn. His superstar status (for Nissman he was the Elvis Presley of his day) encouraged accusations of superficiality. His admiration, indeed worship of Chopin was returned with biting scorn (‘as a creator he is an ass’). Meanwhile George Sand, Chopin’s mistress, saw his religious vocation as attention- seeking, his love of God and the Virgin Mary a pose.

For Clara Schumann there was ‘too much of the tinsel and the drum’ about him and his Sonata was beyond the pale: ‘Nothing but noise and false modulations.’ His decision to give recitals exclusively on his own heralded the start of the solo concert and was adduced as a further instance of exhibitionism. His legendary masterclasses, where students were advised to listen and learn from each other, was yet another instance of an uncalled-for novelty. Overall, Liszt’s range and brio, together with his very public celebrity – his flaunting of his bird of paradise feathers – was too much for all possible rivals. Always, through the murk of so much slander and political contrivance, you sense the presence of jealousy.

It is therefore hardly surprising that Liszt’s life was clouded by self-doubt and depression (he retired from his career as possibly the greatest pianist of all time at the age of 36, seeing his ‘success’ as shallow and vainglorious). His final years showed a marked change from ‘exuberance of the heart’ to ‘bitterness of the heart’ mirrored in works ‘grey with the pain of disillusionment’ yet deeply prophetic, even when they were dismissed by his enemies as evidence of senility. Ignored and slighted before his death, he turned to alcohol for solace and confessed to ‘weariness of living.’

Nissman’s analysis of music she sees as her own spiritual barometer is admirably divided into sections – ‘form and structure’, ‘thematic transformation’, ‘key relationships’, etc – where she lays bare a coherence beyond the understanding of Liszt’s contemporaries, extending far into the future. Most of all, in her own concluding performance of the Sonata her playing shows a burning commitment and a special capacity to pass on the glory of Liszt’s masterpiece. This DVD set is a vital tool to understanding.

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica

   Read full review   

To continue reading, please upgrade to a premium account. You will have immediate full access.

Read more classical music reviews online here:

Piano International, 2017 - ©Rhinegold Publishing