Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 2

Concerto No. 2 in A major for Piano and Orchestra

BORN: October 22, 1811. Raiding, Hungary
DIED: July 31, 1886. Bayreuth, Germany

COMPOSED: Liszt drafted this concerto in 1839, put it away for ten years, but revised it repeatedly, for the fourth and last time in 1861

WORLD PREMIERE: January 7, 1857. Liszt’s pupil Hans van Bronsart (the work’s dedicatee) was soloist and Liszt conducted, in Weimar  

US PREMIERE: October 5, 1870 in Boston. Anna Mehlig was the pianist and Theodore Thomas conducted the Thomas Orchestra

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, and strings

DURATION: About 22 mins

Franz Liszt completed two full-scale concertos for piano—his First, in E-flat major, was unveiled in 1855—but he also composed about twenty other pieces for piano with orchestra including such still-programmed pieces as his Hungarian Fantasy and Totentanz. (Some of those twenty are lost.) Both of the two official, numbered concertos were composed, re-composed, and revised over the course of many years—a quarter of a century for the First Concerto, twenty-two years for the Second. In part, this reflects that Liszt was an unusually busy man, traversing the salons and concert halls of Europe as the most celebrated piano virtuoso of his day during the first decade of the A major Concerto’s gestation; he presided over an active musical culture as Capellmeister-in-Extraordinary to the Grand Duke of Weimar after 1848. But this is only part of the explanation. Liszt could turn out facile piano solos at the drop of a hat. On the other hand, he tended to agonize over works that he envisioned more for posterity, like works in the “big” forms of the symphony or the concerto.

As it turned out, Liszt’s piano concertos are less big than one might have expected from a composer who boasted such an out-sized pianistic presence. The Second Concerto, the longer of the two, runs only about twenty minutes, which is modest for its time. Liszt first drafted it in 1839, returned to it a decade later, and brought it to a provisional completion in 1856, in which form it was premiered in 1857. Even after that, Liszt continued revising it until 1861. Throughout that process, the work’s manuscripts carried the title Concerto symphonique; not until it appeared in published form, on the Schott imprint in 1863, was that heading transformed into “Second Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.”  Liszt first used the description concerto symphonique in a work he composed in 1834-35, De Profundis, an “instrumental psalm” for piano and orchestra. The term achieved some popularity, most notably with Liszt’s contemporary Henry Litolff, who wrote five works so titled; one was lost, and the other four were published between 1844 and 1867, which corresponds quite closely to the chronology of Liszt’s Second Concerto. (Litolff is all but absent from the repertory today with the single exception of the rollicking Scherzo from his Concerto symphonique No. 4.) Liszt was a fan of these works, and he even dedicated his First Piano Concerto to Litolff. As Litolff used it, the term was meant to designate a genre midway between a concerto and a symphony—one might say, a symphony in which the piano plays an obbligato role but is not set off “in opposition to” the orchestra, as had by then become standard practice.

And yet, considering this Liszt concerto in terms of symphonic form is not terribly helpful unless we also recall that Liszt’s symphonies moved to a playing field rather different from, say, Beethoven’s. The footprints of traditional symphonic movements can still be discerned, but Liszt promotes a more through-composed approach to symphonic writing, one that found perfect expression in his development of the new genre of the symphonic poem. This Second Piano Concerto is cast not in three or four separate movements, which would have been typical for a concerto of its time. Instead, it unrolls in a single, uninterrupted span that comprises six distinct sections. Some musicologists have represented this plan as little more than a standard three-movement Romantic concerto that is laid out differently on paper. According to this viewpoint, the piece consists of an opening fast movement introduced by a slow introduction (Allegro sostenuto assai—Allegro agitato assai); a leisurely slow movement (notwithstanding the problematic marking of Allegro moderato, assuming one wants to emphasize the moderato rather than the allegro); and a fast-paced finale that encompasses the remaining three sections (Allegro deciso—–Marziale, un poco meno allegro—Allegro animato).

And yet, Liszt could easily have set up his piece in three such movements had he wanted to. Surely his score accurately represents a more free-flowing stream of consciousness—one in which the sections are obfuscated all the more through the eliding influences of cadenzas and transitional passages. He was outspoken about this penchant, criticizing composers for returning incessantly to tried-and-true musical forms, insisting to his pupil and acolyte August Stradal that “new wines demand new bottles.”

Thinking of the piece in this way concurs with Liszt’s basic musical character, which is on the whole episodic. He does not lean heavily on structural templates to convey logic. The pianist Alfred Brendel observed in his book Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts:

There is something fragmentary about Liszt’s work; its musical argument, perhaps by its nature, is often not brought to a conclusion. But is the fragment not the purest, the most legitimate form of Romanticism? . . .It is the business of the interpreter to show us how a general pause may connect rather than separate two paragraphs, how a transition may mysteriously transform the musical argument. … Anyone who does not know the allure of the fragmentary will remain a stranger to much of Liszt’s music, and perhaps to Romanticism in general.

One idea Liszt put to potent use in his Second Concerto was the technique of thematic transformation. Beethoven and Schubert had done similar things, to be sure. But Liszt thought broadly about the implications of such a thematic transformation, to the point that the refashioning was not just a variation of local interest but rather the musical generator of an entire movement. In this, he was perhaps most allied to Berlioz among his contemporaries, and the idea would be taken up as gospel by Franck and his followers. The opening theme of Liszt’s Second Concerto, for example, is articulated clearly by the first clarinet, playing within a choir of woodwinds. It does serve a normal role as a theme in the opening section, but it also returns late in the concerto, launching the section marked Marziale, un poco meno allegro, but at that spot reimagined as muscular march played fortississimo by the full orchestra; and a few pages later, as soon as that episode has made it points, the solo piano (unaccompanied) takes up the same theme but cloaks it in yet a different outfit, fragmenting the melody into a stretch of ultra-Lisztian yearning against an arpeggiated left-hand accompaniment.

The nature of the keyboard-writing also lends a specific flavor to this concerto. We automatically think of Liszt as a piano virtuoso first and foremost. Indeed, he possessed an extraordinary technique, was noted for his flamboyance during his years as a touring performer, and filled piece after piece with dazzling displays of octave passages, top-velocity finger-work, and writing that careered dizzily up and down the entire length of the keyboard. The A major Concerto is more subdued in this regard. Its technical demands remain substantial, and Liszt certainly does include passages that convey virtuoso spectacle; but on the whole, one senses the composer’s deep-seated desire to integrate the solo instrument into the symphonic texture rather than highlight it as a vessel of independent display.

—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press).

(January 2018)