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WHEN THE MAJOR PIANISTS INTERPRET CHOPIN AND LISZT
By JOHN ROCKWELL
Published: April 26, 1981

Chopin and Liszt stand as perhaps the pre-eminent examples of the worldly, mid-19th-century
piano virtuoso-composer - and a steady flow of recordings attests to their continued
pre-eminence today. Idolized by Parisian and European high society, they wrote music that also
reached out to the newly-aware middle classes, and epitomized both the intimate fantasies and
the bold, nationalist pride of that time. Both men were roughly contemporary, Chopin born in
1810 and Liszt a year later, although Liszt outlived Chopin by 37 years. Both were among the first
to bring the modern concert grand to its full artistic potential, and both can be credited with
harmonic advances that belied their images as purveyors of showy display pieces.

Yet despite these similarities, there were profound differences between the two. Chopin was
the more reserved, aristocratic, dreamily poetic. For all his reputation as a performer, he gave
no more than 30 truly public performances in his entire lifetime, preferring to present his music
in the more intimate surroundings of the Paris salon or to withdraw to the country with Georges
Sand and compose. Next to him, in the 1830's and 40's, Liszt was an extroverted showman - but
also, perhaps, the greatest technician the piano has known.

Charles Halle, who heard both men play in their prime, described the differences as follows:
''Chopin carried you with him into a dreamland, in which you would have liked to dwell forever;
Liszt was all sunshine and dazzling splendor, subjugating his hearers with a power that no one
could withstand.''

Yet in a curious way, these images have become reversed in our time; the reserved elitist has
reached the millions while the showy populist has become prized by an elite. Chopin's piano
music has conquered the repertory, and become the vehicle for virtuosos of every
temperament, from the delicate poetry of a Dinu Lipatti to the bravura poundings of hundreds of
artists, young and old. If a pianist doesn't respond to Chopin's sentiment, there are always the
Polish swagger and the martial octaves to exploit.

Liszt, conversely, while still very much a part of every pianist's repertory with a few key pieces,
doesn't dominate solo piano literature as Chopin does. At the same time, however, modern
musicians have become increasingly fascinated with Liszt's later years. Torn between his
sensual and spiritual inclinations, Liszt was also very much of a musical progressive. While
based in Weimar in the 1850's - after Chopin's death and after his glory years as a touring pianist
-Liszt became the acknowledged center of European musical progressivism, both with his own
piano and orchestral works and through his championing of Wagner and other modernists of the
day. Later on, first based in Rome and then shuttling restlessly between Rome, Weimar and
Budapest, he turned out a body of religious music and, finally, austere piano pieces that still are
not well enough known.

These later piano works point toward the future in various ways. The harmonies are radical
indeed for the time in which they were written - the 1870's and early 1880's. The tonality is often
cloudy for long stretches, there are nervous repetitions and starkly austere textures. And some
of the music -above all the well-known ''Jeux d'eau a la Villa d'Este'' - point directly toward
Impressionism.

The piano music of both composers has naturally attracted the great virtuosos of the recorded
era. With such a wealth of phonographic statements at one's disposal, the task of any presentday
artist who ventures into this repertory becomes a formidable one. He must not only find
something new to say that doesn't lapse into the eccentric, but he must also do battle with one's
youthful memories and recorded documentation of great predecessors.

As a very general statement, it might be suggested that our contemporary sensibility, which
seems to place a premium on directness and straightforwardness of expression, would not be
very likely to provide successful competition for the older recordings. This is music composed at
a time in which personal expression was of paramount importance. Of what use is ''fidelity to the
notes'' when the composer never expected or even desired such literal-minded fidelity in the
first place?

Still, in a sense a truly modern pianist, bristling with the analytical clarity and linear intensity,
might seem paradoxically to have more to offer in this music than some anachronistic
approximation of a Romantic personality. Too many modern-day emulators of the old, overt
emotionality operate in an artificial vacuum, true neither to their own time nor to the past. And in
Liszt's late music - and even some of the major pieces of his middle period -a contemporary
sensibility proves positively illuminating.

Of the recent releases and re-releases of solo piano music by Chopin and Liszt, only one disk
combines both composers. That is an LP by Diana Kacso on Deutsche Grammophon's Concours
series, in which young performers are introduced to the record-buying public by disks that were
recorded live in recital. Miss Kacso, a winner in the Arthur Rubinstein International Competition,
is a Brazilian who studied at the Juilliard School. Her disk (2535 008) combines Liszt's Sonata in B
minor with Chopin's Polonaise-Fantasie in A flat (Op. 61) and Etude in A flat (Op. 10, No. 10). This
is honest, intelligent playing. But it lacks the personality and maturity of her modern-day
competition, let alone the older recorded versions.

Click here to continue reading.

Excerpt from the New York Times