Music Review

Pianists Andre Watts and Evgeny Kissin offer Liszt recitals

By Charles Downey
Monday, March 7, 2011; 9:46 PM

Franz Liszt's music may be easy to dismiss, but it is as infrequently heard as it is widely misunderstood. The cliches are notorious: the trashy virtuoso, the sex-idol rock star (played appropriately by Roger Daltry in Ken Russell's manic biopic, "Lisztomania") and the repentant abbe. The 200th anniversary of the Hungarian composer's birth this year offers a chance to rediscover this arch-romantic, one of the most prolific composers of the 19th century. Perhaps it is even time to reconsider the assertion of scholar Alan Walker that Liszt was, in the words of Bela Bartok, "the true father of modern music." Whether that title will lead you to love or hate Liszt more is a matter of personal taste.

Two all-Liszt recitals over the weekend, by pianists Andre Watts and Evgeny Kissin, offered food for thought. Stepping in to replace Nelson Freire on Sunday, Watts played the more rounded Liszt program of the two in his long-overdue debut at Baltimore's Shriver Hall. The highlight was a set of five pieces on the edge of atonality from Liszt's last years, including the "Bagatelle Sans Tonalite," which ends on a loud fully diminished seventh chord. In these sometimes bizarre works, many of which evoke the despair of the composer's old age (the wandering harmonies of "Nuages Gris"), Liszt flirted with the extreme chromaticism ("En Reve"), augmented chords and whole-tone scales ("La Lugubre Gondola") that would provide paths out of tonality for later composers.

The subtlety of Watts in this set was the exception in a recital fraught with strong-armed, percussive forcefulness. Technical polish was too often sacrificed to visceral excitement and excessively schmaltzy rubato - in short, the sort of interpretation that suits the image of Liszt the vulgarian. Watts gave plenty of sparkle to the more demanding pieces, like the rushing water of the "Jeux d'Eaux a la Villa d'Este" and the echoing horn calls of the fifth "Grande Etude de Paganini" ("La Chasse"), but there were enough minor slips, such as octaves not squarely articulated, to prove distracting.

Not so in the much more rarefied playing of Kissin, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society on Saturday afternoon in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The program was more limited in chronological scope, but Liszt's music sounded much more tenderly poetic, as in "Ricordanza" (the ninth Transcendental Etude), and far less saccharine. Even in "Venezia e Napoli," Liszt's Italianate reworking of Italian composers' themes, Kissin steered clear of the potentially treacly sentimentality of this kind of paraphrase.

Both pianists, to no one's surprise, played Liszt's Piano Sonata, a work that unites many elements of his musical style: the almost keyless ambiguity of the opening theme; the metamorphosis of that theme through variation; extraordinary technical demands, and a seemingly programmatic narrative, in the manner of his tone poems for orchestra. No one knows for certain if Liszt intended the sonata to have a story, although both the Faust legend and the passion of Christ have been suggested, among many others. Kissin gave the work a driven urgency, taking no rhythmic freedom, even in the many astonishing passages in octaves, and achieving a glowing, glossy performance, alternating between sinister and angelic, that Watts could not rival.

Kissin's pianism has an awe-inspiring fortitude: the Bellini-esque flourishes of tiny notes given a translucent, pearly sheen and the voicing of inner melodies singing clearly even when the right hand's accompanying pattern was outrageously decorated. Just as his version of the sonata told a more coherent story than Watts's, Kissin evoked the death knell, booming drums and roaring cannon of a funeral tribute to Hungarian patriots in "Funerailles" and the restless peregrination of Senancour's hero in the "Vallee d'Obermann." Three encores - Liszt's arrangement of Schumann's "Widmung," the sixth movement of "Soirees de Vienne" and the famous Liebestraume No. 3 - were a final reminder that Liszt was no mere showman but a sincere musician who deserves a second look.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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