Enhancements Put Works in Context at Three-Day Liszt Festival

Pianist Michele Campanella was a Liszt festival featured performer.
Pianist Michele Campanella was a Liszt festival featured performer. (Courtesy Of The Italian Embassy - Courtesy Of The Italian Embassy)
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By Ronni Reich
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 2, 2008

From satellite photos of outer space accompanying Beethoven to wine and cheese with Monteverdi, the tricked-out symphony or recital is meant to draw listeners with diverse interests. But to purists, these same devices can distract, overstimulate or graft explicit meanings onto music that defies illustration.

Franz Liszt is a particularly interesting case in this regard. The American Liszt Society, which presented "Liszt, Literature and Painting" over the weekend as part of a three-day festival, is determined to show he's substantial and not emptily virtuosic, as is often suggested. It makes sense that the organization would try to do so by digging into the well of art that influenced him.

At the same time, there was already plenty to listen to -- and watch -- during a performance Saturday at Catholic University's Hartke Theatre of the composer's transcription of Schubert's "Erlkoenig." Anything added to Steven Spooner's dazzling, blurry-handed sweeps of the entire piano would have been dizzying.

Commendably, the festival managed to reconcile both schools of thought by explaining connections without superimposing art forms. By paraphrasing Goethe and reading a section of Nikolaus Lenau's "Faust" before launching into Beethoven/Liszt song transcriptions and "Mephisto Waltz," pianists Alexandre Dossin and Luiz de Moura Castro (with reader Bridget de Moura Castro) set the scene for Liszt's work but mostly let the music speak for itself. The readings were brief and without the didactic, lulling quality pre-performance lectures tend to have.

More literature might have helped pianist Michele Campanella's program Friday at Coolidge Auditorium, "The Profound and the Profane." It blended expressively played sacred works with five impressive Hungarian Rhapsodies, but how the latter could be considered substantive remained a mystery.

The one exception to the less-is-more approach was "Mephisto Waltz." After reading a chilling section of the Lenau, Bridget and Luiz de Moura Castro acted out the piece as a melodrama, stopping and starting, leaving the piano and returning. It was fragmented and strange, but the imagery could not have been clearer, and the audience was thrilled.

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