BLOG: LISZT'S VALSE OUBLIéES
I carry with me a deep sadness of the heart which must now and then break out in sound.Liszt
I've long been a fan of Liszt, ever since I was a little kid in fact.
Like most kids of my generation my first exposure to his music (if not classical music in general) was hearing his Hungarian Rhapsody #2 played by some major cartoon characters. Raised in an environment where the finer arts were not a part of daily life, and may even have been seen with suspicion, it took me a very long time (years, in fact) to discover who the composer of this glorious showpiece was. (This was before the internet could answer my question in seconds.)
And so began a lifelong love affair with Liszt, for which I thank the studios, animators, and directors responsible for producing these wonderful cartoons.
The first LP (actually LPs) I ever purchased were the complete Hungarian Rhapssodies boxset from Deustche Gramophone played by Roberto Szidon. I still have them. While my friends were listening to The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, I was the only one listening to Liszt (and Telemann and Bach and Beethoven (and Shostakovich (and Schoenberg (and Penderecki)))).
In my search for more Liszt I eventually came across his late music (performed by Alfred Brendel, one of the great Liszt pianists). I was blown away. It wasn't like the exuberantly extroverted Rhapsodies, or the Concertos. It was introspective, darker, filled with longing and regret and despair and death. It hit me hard. Works of great beauty and profundity. This was existential music.
There was one late piece of his in particular that I fell in love with, the Valse Oubliée: it is at once beautiful and playful, but with a darkly wistful edge to it of longing and nostalgia and regret. It's a piece filled with subtext, a great work of art that can only have been produced by a genius in full command of his craft to express the ineffable in such a way that he's able to communicate it to others, soul to soul. It has stayed with me through my life.
I didn't know until recently that his late pieces have a unique place in classical music. There's an excellent wikipedia entry about Liszt's late pieces that's worth reading. In brief:
The radical change Franz Liszt's compositional style underwent in the last 20 years of his life was unprecedented in Western classical music.The article explains the late works better than I can ever hope to, so I will simply refer you to it. I will content myself with a few short sentences about my experience with a set of four of his late works.
I don't know how I missed it — perhaps it's because I've pursued infatuations with many other composers in the interim — but only yesterday I discovered that the Valse Oublié I had long known and loved was only the first of four. It was an astonishing revelation. The other three pieces were like evolutionary extensions of the first one, each one getting more daring and darker, or if not darker, increasingly unhinged. Indeed the last one climaxes in this breathtaking, forlorn exaltation as if he's going towards the light... then it just ends, as if Liszt couldn't be bothered (or resisted) writing the final cadence.
These are incredible pieces, some of the most powerful I've heard in a long long time (except for a couple of pieces by CPE Bach I came across recently). This preface to Verlag's publication of the four pieces excellently conveys what these pieces are about:
“Oublié” (forgotten) became a kind of emblematic concept for the composer: it stood for remembrance and, at the same time, for certain musical forms and genres that time had passed over. In the early 1880s, the old romances were just as archaic and out-of-date as the ingratiating piano waltzes that Liszt had cultivated in his early years. The Valse oubliée, later supplied with the ordinal number Première, evokes this bygone time, but with a certain distancing effect. While not disclaiming virtuosity or elegance, Liszt permeates the piece with nostalgia and irony, and alludes to the historical position of such pieces by embedding typical melodic and rhythmic formulae of the salon waltzes into an innovative, non-tonal framework that is characteristic of his late style.
Note the mention of "non-tonal" in that last sentence. Liszt was pushing beyond the boundaries of his time to find a way to express himself in a language that didn't yet exist but that he was instrumental in bringing about. What other composer of that time dared even conceive of composing a Bagatelle without Tonality? There's a reason why Bartok proclaimed that Liszt was the true father of modern music.
Here, then, are all four of these truly remarkable pieces performed by Setrak, a pianist I've never heard of before, who plays them with genuine understanding and sensitivity.