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Turning to Liszt's more 'grand designs', do the symphonic poems, A Faust Symphony, the piano sonata, etc, really fall so hopelessly flat through sheer lack of sufficient technical competence? If so, why did their experiments in form, characterisation and thematic / motivic transformation so heavily influence later composers such as Strauss, Schönberg, etc? Whilst I accept that, for example, in his oratorio Christus, Liszt by no means fires consistently on all cylinders and, as such, fails to deliver anything of the order of Bruckner's E minor Mass or Brahms's rather more compact and concentrated Ein Deutsches Requiem, yet the work retains many moments of interest and is at times illustrative of certain more experimental tendencies in other later pieces of his that helped to pave the way towards developments in early 20th century music. For the purpose of supporting his argument here, Mr Standford surely places too much emphasis on Liszt's life as a piano virtuoso in order to undermine him as a composer, rather as some of the more pernicious critics between the two World Wars tended to follow the unedifying Stravinskyan example of damning each new work by Rakhmaninov as being by one of the world's indisputably great pianists who nevertheless had nothing new to say as a composer.
Even Mr Standford's efforts to redress the balance by praising Liszt's generosity as a transcriber seek to reduce this aspect of his work to the level of an unusually inspired 'arranger'. Liszt's piano versions of Beethoven's symphonies did indeed do what Mr Standford says they did, but their significance is so much greater than just that. Like Alkan, Liszt sought to demonstrate that the piano could assume the mantle of an orchestra in its own right; whilst the principal difference between the two composers in this respect is that Liszt proved it with his 'pianisings' of Beethoven whereas Alkan did so with his own music, this does not -- and indeed cannot -- of itself signify that Alkan was a 'greater' composer than Liszt.
Copyright © 5 July 2007
Alistair Hinton, Bath UK