The Library of Congress is celebrating the Franz Liszt bicentennial with two weeks of concerts and scholarly lectures, which is a good thing. On the other hand, lecture-performances such as the one cellist Tamas Zetenyi and musicians from the Bard College Conservatory offered on Saturday afternoon are what keep people away from scholarly events in droves (there were 22 in the Coolidge Auditorium audience for this one).
The performances were fine. Zetenyi is a sensitive musician, obviously deeply committed to Liszt’s chamber music and in tune with the composer’s darker moods. Zetenyi has a vibrato that he uses with infinite variety and that mirrors every shade of emotion. Indeed, at times he uses none and projects wispy sounds with eerie overtones. Pianist Zsolt Balogh was an appropriately understated accompanist, and the three other string players played with warm, full-bodied sonorities, if with occasionally wandering pitch.
But this program offered the very caricature of scholarship. It began with a 30-minute lecture, but because Zetenyi never turned on his mike and rarely faced the audience, the lecture was mostly inaudible — more like a secret between himself and his podium. And since the printed program had very little to do with what was actually performed (it listed Zetenyi as a pianist and promised a nonexistent harp), few people had any idea what they were listening to, or knew when pieces ended or when to applaud. It was all quite awkward.
And the program was chosen for the scholar, not for the listener. Liszt, who imbued his tone poems and piano works with energy and color, apparently lavished his darkest, most depressing moods on music for cello and piano, so the afternoon was filled with somber elegies (and a transcription of the “O du, mein holder Abendstern” aria from Wagner’s “Tannhaeuser” that’s lyrically elegiac), each one short, to be sure, and quite lovely and heartfelt but, en masse, too much, too dark and too alike in their unresolved “going to heaven” endings. The single-movement “Angelus” Quartet and “Triste la Vallee d’Obermann” Trio that opened the program and the big resolute piano quintet movement that ended it offered the afternoon’s only variety.