Liszt: Concerto No. 2 in A Major for Piano and Orchestra

Franz Liszt was born on October 22, 1811, in Raiding, Hungary, and died on July 31, 1886, in Bayreuth, Bavaria. He drafted this concerto in 1839, put it away for ten years, but revised it repeatedly, for the fourth and last time in 1861. He dedicated it to his pupil Hans van Bronsart, who gave the first performance, with Liszt conducting, at Weimar on January 7, 1857. The first North American performance was given in Boston on October 5, 1870, by Anna Mehlig, Theodore Thomas conducting the Thomas Orchestra. Tina Lerner was the pianist to play it first with the San Francisco Symphony; that was in March 1918, and Alfred Hertz conducted. In the most recent performances, in March 2009, Jean-Yves Thibaudet was the soloist and James Conlon conducted. The orchestra consists of three flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, and strings. Performance time: about twenty-two minutes.

In manuscript, Liszt called this work Concerto symphonique; it became the Second Concerto for Piano and Orchestra only in 1863, when it was published. Liszt borrowed his original title from the Concertos symphoniques of Henry Litolff, an unclassifiably international composer of Alsatian-Scots descent, English birth, and chiefly French and German residence. Liszt admired his slightly younger colleague, took part in festivals he organized at Braunschweig, corresponded with him, and dedicated his First Piano Concerto to him.

Liszt liked Litolff’s Concertos symphoniques label and was intensely interested in what it stood for. This was a way of composing that Liszt had already learned from an earlier and nobler source, Franz Schubert. Liszt's technique of symphonic or thematic metamorphosis—drawing themes of highly diverse character from a single melodic shape—is a much publicized affair, and I recall being told long ago in a music appreciation class that Liszt’s Les Préludes, a good example of the method, was an extraordinarily innovative work. When I first heard Schubert’s great Wanderer Fantasy for piano, I learned that Schubert, not Liszt, had discovered the technique. Later, I came across a recording of Liszt's orchestral version of the Wanderer and began to put two and two together.

One way the ever-inventive and exploring Liszt was independent and ahead of his time was in his appreciation of Schubert. Schubert certainly had his defenders, but the fashion of the time was to be patronizing about him, to regard him as a confectioner and a purveyor of Viennese charm (the songs “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and “Erlkönig” being unaccountable descents into the abyss), a wonderful melodist and therefore a fine song writer, but hopelessly garrulous and out of his depth when he attempted larger forms. As the arrangements of dances that he published under the title of Soirées de Vienne show us, Liszt was as susceptible as anyone to the seductive caresses of Schubert the Viennese miniaturist, but in the Wanderer Fantasy, which he turned into a concerto around 1850 but had long known, he recognized an extraordinary compositional command and a spirit as innovative as his own.

In external appearance, the Wanderer Fantasy is a sonata, a large piece in four movements, but Schubert pays special attention to linking their movements. His bold concept of combining the functions and characteristics of a single-movement work and a multi-movement sonata was fascinating and fruitful. Among its distinguished progeny one finds many works by Liszt, including his two piano concertos. Both are short, brilliant pieces whose movements are connected. That said, they are markedly different. The Concerto No. 1 is an octaves-and-glitter piece with small poetic ambition. It is as near to being performer-proof as any concerto in the repertory. Within the range of its own delightful intentions, it hits the bull's eye.

The Concerto No. 2 is another matter. Liszt is sparing with devices guaranteed to bring down the house, and there you have the influence of Litolff, who sought in his Concertos symphoniques to integrate the piano parts with the orchestra. But even more important is the pervasiveness of a manner, a tone, that asks listeners for concentrated attention and delicacy of response. An expert keyboard athlete can make a go of the First Concerto. The Second Concerto is for poets.

The music begins quietly, confidingly, with just half a dozen woodwinds, actually never more than five at one time. It also moves slowly so that the curious turn of the phrase may settle in our memories. Nothing could be more ordinary than the first sound. Little could be more surprising than the chord that follows it, which opens windows to a world undreamed of by the first. This chord sequence, so colorful and strange, yet so simply grasped and sounding so inevitable, is the key to the whole concerto. That becomes evident later. For the moment, we hear it as the quietly arresting beginning of a short paragraph of wistful questions; the last of these, pronounced by the clarinet alone, leads us to the entrance of the soloist.

He asserts his presence not with a display of power, but as a sweetly harmonious, sensitive, responsive accompanist to the woodwinds and muted strings, who play a newly and beautifully scored version of the opening bars. We shall never hear the soloist give out those measures in their plain form; his task is to invent—or seem to invent—ever fresh and imaginative pianistic dress for them. He immediately suggests a new way of hearing the phrase, stressing its accents, accompanied by full chords.

Another variant with wind and cello solos, and with garlands of piano scales, leads to a brief cadenza—an extended solo passage—which is one of Liszt's ways of getting from section to section in this concerto. This is a work of many and distinct episodes that succeed each other rapidly.

Emerging from his cadenza, Liszt proceeds with his metamorphoses. A host of musical characters passes before us. The tempo gets faster, the harmonic range wider. Liszt's harmony is no less daring once he has reached his goal in the gentle string music that comes so soothingly after some grand pianistic derring-do. We might say that he reaches his harmonic goal only to leave it; or rather, that he uses it as a frame for a series of journeys in which he first gives us a lyric movement built around a gorgeous cello solo and then a forceful allegro.

Again the tempo and the harmonic changes become faster until, after a big building up of suspense, we come back to the A major with which the concerto opened, and to the last metamorphosis. Not only is it the last, but it has been the most controversial. Liszt now turns the opening music into a march for full orchestra, with excited punctuation from the piano. Almost without exception, writers have attacked this as vulgar and as a betrayal of the theme's poetic essence. It is nonetheless, as Robert Winter has noted, “a masterstroke that demonstrates the full emotional range of thematic transformation”; it also has exactly the weight and force needed to re-establish the concerto’s proper key, which over the course of the previous fifteen minutes’ adventures has become quite remote. And let us not neglect something more basic: This march is exciting.

But Liszt has no intention of forgetting the poetry, for the march leads to the most imaginative, personal page in the work, a variation for piano, subtly seconded by a few orchestral instruments, and to be played appassionato and with supple flexibility. It is almost startling to realize that, except for a brief passage just after the first cello solo, this is the first music in the concerto where the pianist is unambiguously dominant. The rest of this astonishingly original Romantic masterpiece is coda, excitingly paced, forcefully scored, and to the end very much a matter of partnership between solo and orchestra.

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: Stephen Hough, with Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra (Hyperion)  |  Jean-Yves Thibaudet, with Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (Decca/Arkiv reprint)  |  Emanuel Ax, with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra (Sony)  |  Sviatoslav Richter, with Kiril Kondrashin and the London Symphony Orchestra (Philips Solo)

Reading: Franz Liszt, by Alan Walker (Knopf; the three-volume “essential” Liszt biography)  |  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)