To say that Liszt's high-powered "Mephisto" Waltz No. 1 is devilishly difficult is not just a verbal conceit. Even Rubinstein had to take it a little slower in his later years, his playing of this musical torrent a bit less powerful and thunderous than before, though still most accomplished.
* Certainly, though, there was no shortage of either power or thunder in the performance of it by pianist Jerome Rose in his concert last night, part of the week-long Liszt festival here. Tempos were fast but rocklike in their steadiness. He tore into the opening at a wicked pace and kept it up as Liszt added more digital demands on top of digital demands.
Certainly Rose, a Liszt authority who is recording the virtuoso composer's complete piano works, was never at a loss for power. He got huge sonorities out the piano even though the instrument in the Smithsonian's Baird Auditorium has less than the ideal flexibility for Liszt (you heard the right sound if you tuned into "Sunday Morning's" repeat this week of the extraordinary Horowitz Moscow recital).
*Rose also is artistic director of this centennial "celebration" of Liszt's death ("celebration" may seem an odd choice of word, but that's what they're calling it). The event is jointly sponsored by the Smithsonian Resident Associates, the Kennedy Center and the Library of Congress. It concludes Sunday with a Kennedy Center gala.
* But if Rose's "Mephisto" was an unqualified triumph, one had mixed feelings to some of the other playing. Nothing was less than able; but one did not always hear the e'lan of the pianist's Mephisto. Nor did Liszt's gorgeous melodies in the more lyric works sing out as they might.
It may seem paradoxical that a major musician who was not an opera composer (he left that to his fabled son-in-law Wagner) should produce so many fine works for the piano with phrases of essentially vocal qualities. To be at its most effective, this music must be shaped like a singer's lines.
Rose was inconsistent in this regard. For instance, his first statement of the glowing opening theme from the "Be'ne'diction de Dieu dans la solitude," a neglected work of great beauty, was a little underplayed, short on color and a little fuzzy in texture. But when the theme returned later it was played with real sensitivity, including a truly lovely legato resonance. Maybe the inconsistency came from the pianist, but also maybe the fault was in the piano, which sometimes seemed to elude his most careful efforts to color in the midrange. On top it sounded better.
*The "Be'ne'diction" was one of the four selections from Liszt's "Harmonies poe'tiques et religieuses" that constituted the recital's first half. There was the most famous of them, that magnificent funeral march, "Fune'railles," with Rose executing the runs and octave passages brilliantly; he is certainly nothing if not precise.
* There also were two of the "Anne'es de pe lerinage (Suisse)," including the eloquent and moody "Valle'e d'Obermann." Rose caught the mood well and some of the leaps required were spectacularly clean; still there could have been a little more color. The same was true of "Cantique d'amour" from "Harmonies."
Rose played the works from both collections without applause between the numbers. There is ample precedent for that, of course; after all, Alfred Brendel played both the Swiss and the Italian "Anne'es" here that way only a few weeks ago. But since these individual pieces are not internally , organically related movements (usually they are played alone), I think they work better if listeners can let off a little steam between them, especially after something as overwhelming as "Fune'railles." Granted, though, it is not an earthshaking issue.
* Tonight's concert at Baird, which is at the Museum of Natural History, features Liszt's little heard but lovely songs, with baritone William Parker and mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood.