Bellucci's Wonderful Workings With Liszt

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 2, 2005

It would be going too far to call Giovanni Bellucci's Saturday afternoon piano recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater a complete success. And yet it was one of the most thoughtful, personal and brilliantly played events of the season -- a truly interesting concert, in all senses of that problematic word.

As Eric Bromberger observed in his apt and informative program notes, Bellucci elected to play an "all-Liszt program -- sort of." The first half of the recital was devoted to three "paraphrases" that Liszt arranged from Verdi operas -- elaborate, spectacularly virtuosic variations on themes from "Aida," "Il Trovatore" and "Rigoletto." And then, after intermission, Bellucci sat down and played Liszt's piano arrangement of Hector Berlioz's complete "Symphonie Fantastique."

It sometimes seems that the world may be divided into two camps -- those who think Liszt was an inspired composer and those who wonder what the fuss is about. To this taste, the paraphrases were a lot of flashy nonsense piled on top of some of the sturdiest tunes in the repertory -- 19th-century precursors of the meaningless "Hey-look-at-me!-I'm-playing-'Misty'-in-7/4" showboating that can be heard from jazz pianists in nightclubs across the nation. Liszt never gives us 10 notes when he can give us 10,000. Most of his music is singularly deficient in the grand, stern Platonic virtue of essentialism.

Yet what spectacular playing Bellucci gave us! He takes these works seriously but not so seriously that he couldn't have fun with them (the paraphrase on "Rigoletto" sounded as though it had been written for some superhuman hybrid of Vladimir Horowitz and Chico Marx, as it should). Bellucci reveled in cascading octaves, exquisitely slippy-sliding filigree, booming basses that rang out like tolling bells. He was as meltingly tender as anybody could have asked for in the love music from "Aida," yet the strength he brought to the "Miserere" from "Trovatore" called to mind the sound of an anvil dropped on the left side of the keyboard.

The "Symphonie Fantastique" was something else again. Some composers adapt readily to transcription: You can play Bach on anything, from synthesizer to tuba quartet, and it will remain stubbornly, triumphantly Bach. Yet if you were to tamper with the orchestration in a Mahler symphony or a Richard Strauss tone poem, you would end up with a fundamentally different piece. And so with Berlioz: Liszt was both remarkably faithful to the original "Symphonie" and simultaneously aware that his arrangement would necessarily inhabit another musical world.

It doesn't really work, sad to say. The sylvan second movement, "A Ball," so relaxed and sweetly songful when played by an orchestra, cannot help but sound strenuous when one musician is called upon to do the work of many. As Berlioz composed it, the "Scene in the Fields" is all color and nuance. Bellucci played it with luminous poetry but could not begin to approximate the sound of an English horn on the piano (and this movement needs its English horn). And the last movement -- already loud and louder in Berlioz's original -- here veered perilously close to clatter.

Still, it would be hard to imagine a better performance. Bellucci's playing combined lyricism, pyrotechnics and a sure sense of musical narrative. He has real ideas about the piece and I wonder if he will ever have the chance (and the inclination) to conduct it.

This highly unusual, endlessly stimulating program was presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society as part of its Patrick and Evelyn Swarthout Hayes Piano Series. It will not likely be duplicated soon, nor need it be. But I can't imagine anybody who was in attendance forgetting the afternoon.

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