LISZT:  Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major for Piano and Orchestra

Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major for Piano and Orchestra

Franz (Ferenc) Liszt was born on October 22, 1811, in Raiding, near Sopron, Hungary, and died on July 31, 1886, in Bayreuth, Germany. Sketches for this concerto go back to about 1830, and Liszt worked on the score in the late 1840s and again in 1853. Still more revisions of detail followed the premiere, which took place at Weimar on February 17, 1855, with the composer as the pianist and Hector Berlioz conducting. The first United States performance came ten years later, on December 2, 1865, with Theodore Thomas’s Symphony Soirée at Irving Hall in New York, Sebastian Bach Mills playing the solo part. Gottfried Galston was the first to perform the work with the San Francisco Symphony, in December 1912, with Henry Hadley conducting. In the most recent performances, at this season’s Opening Gala on September 7, 2011, and in a free Centennial Birthday Bash concert the following day, Lang Lang was soloist, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. The concerto is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, triangle, cymbals, timpani, and strings. Duration: about twenty minutes.

Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony suddenly enlarged music and presented composers with new problems in organization and form, problems that affected not only big pieces like Berlioz’s fifty-minute Symphonie fantastique, which was on the program when the Liszt E-flat Concerto was heard for the first time, but also comparatively short ones like this concerto. All his life, Liszt gave serious, imaginative, and productive thought to the issue of form. His quest was most extraordinarily, most richly rewarded in his B minor Piano Sonata of 1852-53, a work in which nobility of spirit, intellectual power, and fascinatingly virtuosic writing exist in perfect equipoise. If the E-flat Concerto has never shared the intellectual respectability of the sonata or even of Liszt’s other piano concerto, No. 2 in A major of 1857-61, it is a piece pianists have always enjoyed playing and one that audiences love to hear.

It is said that Liszt and his son-in-law, the brilliant pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, put words to the two opening measures: “Das versteht ihr alle nicht, haha!” (None of you understand this, ha-ha!). The story sounds believable. Certainly von Bülow never passed up an opportunity to express his sense of superiority. I cannot say what exactly he and Liszt had in mind. It is easy to be dazzled by the flying octaves in this concerto (after all, dazzle is what they are for) and to take note of the unusual prominence accorded the triangle (and for some to take umbrage as well). Perhaps the point that Liszt and von Bülow were trying to make, even if they were only talking to each other, is that there is more to the Concerto No. 1 than that—more invention, more wit, and more poetry. Liszt may have been one of the nineteenth century’s most exasperating underachievers, to say nothing of committing the unforgivable sin of success on a staggering scale, but this concerto reminds us he was also a genius.

Das versteht ihr alle nicht” is a simple and powerful phrase for strings in octaves (this was the first idea Liszt wrote down around 1830); “haha!” is a firm punctuation mark added by woodwinds and brass. Liszt repeats the phrase a step lower, leading to a startlingly different harmony. At this point, widening the harmonic horizons still further, the pianist makes his presence known in an imposing cadenza. And there we have Liszt’s method for this astonishing movement, which is filled with harmonic ambiguity. Again and again he returns to his opening phrase, and each time it leads to something new, to a recitative, to a lyric melody, to thundering octaves, and finally to weightlessly glittering passagework that ends the movement in a puff of smoke.

A word about the orchestra in all this. There is very little of the massive scoring we hear at the outset; rather, there are many delicate solos. The first extended lyric melody, for example, is a duet between solo clarinet and piano, which is then continued by the piano with two violins in unison.

Liszt strings the second, third, and fourth movements together without pause. He does not specify attacca in the transition from the first movement to the second, but it is clear that this is what he means. The strings lead off and suggest a melody which the piano then sings for us in full. This is one of Liszt’s most beautiful inspirations, full of passion and poetry. When this melody comes to its close, the orchestra restates its suggestive beginning, more urgently this time. Now the piano responds with a fervently declamatory recitative. As the passions calm, woodwind soloists present a new idea against a decorative background provided by piano and strings. But when the clarinet offers to bring back the great melody from the beginning of the movement, there is an interruption: silence, the ping of a triangle, and the dancing reply of plucked strings.

This scherzo is another movement that is not concluded. Liszt breaks it off for a cadenza. The pianist recalls the beginning of the concerto, and suddenly those pages loom large again in a dramatic and developing restatement, which in turn opens the way for the martial finale. And here there is really nothing new. All is transformation and recapitulation. The concerto’s fourth movement, Liszt said, is a recapitulation of what has come before, only quicker, and with a springier rhythm. “This binding and rounding off a piece at its close,” he wrote, “is a technique I have made my own, but it is justified by the musical form. The trombones and basses take up the second part of the adagio’s motif. The piano passage that comes after this is the motif just played in the adagio by flute and clarinet. The final passage is a variation and major-mode development of the scherzo’s motif. At last the very first theme comes in with a trill accompaniment, to conclude the whole.”

—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Emanuel Ax, with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra (Sony)  |  Yundi Li, with Andrew Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)

Reading: Franz Liszt, by Alan Walker (Knopf)  |  Liszt: The Artist as Romantic Hero, by Eleanor Perényi (Atlantic-Little, Brown)  |  The Music of Liszt, by Humphrey Searle (Dover)  |  Franz Liszt: The Man and the Musician, by Ronald Taylor (Universe)  |  Liszt, by Derek Watson (Schirmer)

(June 2012)