Saturday, October 22, 2011

Immortal Franz

Today is the 200th birthday of Franz Liszt. Back in my high school days, when I was trying to learn everything I could about the piano in a small Arkansas town, I remember two books from the local library that made a particular impression on me. One was Abram Chasins' The Van Cliburn Legend, which was written shortly after Cliburn won the 1958 Tchaikovsky competition. Cliburn had grown up less than two hours from where I lived and this book was written with the same kind of celebratory style as the kid-oriented sports books I loved to read - books like Great Quarterbacks of the NFL. So, the Cliburn story was quite inspirational for someone who went, in a few years time, from dreams of sports stardom to dreams of...well, winning the Tchaikovsky Competition.

The other library book I loved was a wildly fictional biography of Liszt called Immortal Franz. Dating from the 1930s, it was written by someone with the wonderful name, Zsolt Harsanyi, which gave it an extra dose of exoticism. I don't remember much detail from the book now other than that it spent a lot of time recounting the composer's many torrid affairs. And that was OK with me: classical music could not have seemed more exciting. (I see from searching online that it was subtitled "The Life and Loves of a Genius.") I also remember liking one part where fictional Franz told a female student, "Women can't play Beethoven." It actually seemed like that might be true to me - I figured this knocked out half my competition if I ever entered the Tchaikovsky! - but I've since learned that women can play Beethoven. (But, of course, they can't play Liszt.)
I never won the Tchaikovsky Competition and I haven't led the extravagant social life that Liszt did (though I've encountered many women who can play circles around me), but I'm still a fan of piano pyrotechnics and the nonfictional Franz. I haven't really played a lot of Liszt, although I did learn (on 24 hours notice) his version of the "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde for a lecture a couple of years ago. But there's a lot of Liszt I'd love to play if time and fingers were willing - perhaps some day. High on the liszt of pieces I'd want to try are these two opposites, showing that Liszt can speak to both sides of our natures.

...and if you should choose to start playing these two recordings at the same time, well...that's between you and your shoulders. (Of course, I would never do such a thing to Liszt.)

P.S. Those pieces are: Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude & THE Mephisto Waltz.

P.P.S. Yes, I realize it would've tied this post together better if those were Van Cliburn recordings of Liszt - but I couldn't resist using YouTube videos with pictures of Liszt. I have to admit, I'm rather proud of the way those videos are sitting on my virtual shoulders there...

P.P.P.S. But, yes, Cliburn can play Liszt.

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