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Franz Liszt. Program Two

  • Funerailles
  • Sonata in B Minor

  • Three Etudes d'execution transendante:
    • A Minor
    • Harmonies de soir
    • Mazeppa
  • Two Consolations
  • Réminiscences de Don Juan

  1. Funérailles

The year 2011 is the bicentennial of Franz Liszt, an outstanding Hungarian composer, pianist and conductor of innovative genius and an eminent musical activist. The scope of Liszt's activity, creativity and personality is huge, and his contribution to world musical culture is extremely important.

In honour of this luminous event, Vazgen Vartanian has prepared two programs dedicated to Franz Liszt. In these programs, Liszt's creative output is presented in a variety of ways and on a wide scale, exposing all facets of his creative individuality, innovative pianism, richness of form, mastery of aural imagery, depth of expression and the drama of musical thought in large-scale works. The combination of Liszt's multi-faceted genius and Vazgen Vartanian's creative mastery make it possible to speak of a consummate and perfect artistic synthesis realized in these programs.

In Liszt's enormous output, which included piano, vocal, choral and symphonic genres, the piano occupied an exclusive place. It seems that insofar as Liszt was concerned, the piano could take the place of a whole orchestra and supersede all other instruments in richness. This is not surprising, considering the fact that Liszt was one of the outstanding pianists of his time, the foremost pianist in Europe, during the nineteenth century. His playing mesmerized the public. He was compared to a lava-spewing volcano. His glory knew no bounds. He garnered wreaths in all countries of Europe, including Russia. In the streets of Berlin, Liszt was even more venerated than the King of Prussia himself. Hungary took fatherly pride in its outstanding compatriot and popular manifestations followed his appearances there.

Nevertheless, the European musical arena knew no more controversial a figure than Liszt. In his persona, his posture was sincere and conveyed heart-felt impulses of vitality. Revolutionary fervor, fused with religious ardour, led to a spiritual duality, which was elevated to the highest degree and achieved a most intense expression, not only in music but in his life. The world was shocked when Liszt, at the height of his powers, cut short his career as a virtuoso, and was even more shocked, when, towards the end of his life, received holy orders and became an abbot.

All these opposites were so closely intertwined in Liszt's output and personality that they effectively made up his singular individuality. Intellect and presence, depth of feeling and artistic posture, delicate lyricism and unsurpassed virtuosity, candid emotion and pensive achievement of metaphysical essence - these are Liszt's main contributions which unfold in all their completeness in Vazgen Vartanian's programs. This revelation occurs by various means: dramatic construction of the program, individuality of interpretation of the musical text, intense reasoning and, of course, virtuoso pianism.

Vazgen Vartanian's musical reasoning here, as always, revealed a striving towards a full-scale musical representation. In each program dedicated to Liszt's music, his profile is represented in the highest possible entirety, showing various aspects of his creativity. Here we hear large-scale compositions, performed with profound philosophical and dramatic pathos, the Sonata in B minor, the “Funerailles”, the most complex of concert etudes (“Mazeppa”, the Etude in F Minor, “Wild Jagd”) and the psychological images from the from the cycle “Annees de Pelerinage” (“Vallee d'Oberman”, “Sonetto del Petrarca No.104),the “Consolations” and concert transcriptions (variations on themes by Bach, Mozart, Glinka), “Lorelei” and, at last, character pieces, the Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 and the “Scherzo and March”.

It is interesting to note that, in choosing his programs, Vartanian begins with significant works of a deep and dramatic spirit. In doing so he establishes an important aspect of Liszt's output, enveloping the listener in a profound comprehension of the personality and creativity of the composer. Thus the first program opened with a work of repressed tragedy, the variations on a theme from Bach's cantata “Wienen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen”. Liszt widely studied Bach's works, including his organ works, and knew them thouroughly.

The reverence for the terse depth of Bach's works and their dramatic recreation in his own output says much about the many-sided virtuosic profile of Franz Liszt, far from being of a superficial nature. In Vartanian's performance of these works, we hear a deeply-felt synthesis of profoundness, romantic contemplation and dramatic expression. He creates a prologue of sorts to a multi-faceted revelation of the composer's essence.

Of especially great importance was beginning and course of the second program. In it, the dramatic accent was reinforced by the joining of two prominent large-scale works. It started out with “Funerailles”, a great piano poem dedicated to the fighters of the Hungarian revolution, and was followed by the no less dramatic, grandiose, integral in spirit and most complex in matters of form, Sonata in B Minor. The essence of gloomy and triumphant heroics, from the tolling of the bell-like basses to the openly dramatic pathos is undoubtedly prevalent in Vartanian's interpretation. The contrasting of drama and piercing lyricism is not superficial and does not strive to be so, but is as natural as the life of spirit itself, as a result of which the integral essence of the work is born.

The dramatic prologue to the second program finds its continuation in the famous Sonata in B Minor, dedicated to Robert Schumann. It is distinguished by deep philosophical content, a wide-scale measure of psychological contrasts and complex dramatic structure. Here unfolds Vartanian's omnipresent sense of wholeness, defining the expressiveness and meaning of each detail, each inflection, each theme. Boldly and intensely expressed, they have a meaning within the context of the whole work. Yet another time, this occurs due to the retreat of pathos in isolated episodes; for example, the secondary theme sounds philosophically reserved, rather than openly emotional, as it customarily does in usual performances by other pianists. The Liszt Sonata in Vartanian's performance is not a “museum piece”; in it, poeticalness of arrangement, the character of a large-scale dramatic narration prevails over exposition. Striking development, philosophical reserve, freedom of elaboration, tempo and dynamic contrast - all this produces a stunning effect: the aural form acquires features of Baroque sculpture in Vartanian's performance, achieved by means of a tense inner motion.

The variety of pianistic and artistic facets of Liszt's output is revealed by the program pieces presented by Vartanian from a cycle of impressions, poetic and musical sketches: “Vallee d'Oberman”, “Sonetto del Petrarca No.104” from the cycle “Annees de Pelerinage”, six of the “Transcendental Etudes”, the most complex being “Mazeppa” and “Wild Jagd” and the most colorful, “Feux Follets” and “Harmonies du Soir”, and the two works from the cycle “Consolations”. This list is supplements by the famous “Hungarian Rhapsody No.2”, “Lorelei”, and the fantastically effective “Scherzo and March”.

Each of the pieces performed in the program creates its inimitable form and reveals a unique technical richness. The performer deeply senses and transmits the essence of program music (“Vallee d'Oberman”), the illumination of lyrical feeling (“Consolations”), depicts infernal bizarreness in the “Scherzo and March” and the freshness of national colouring in the “Hungarian Rhapsody”.

In Vartanian's program, Liszt's famous pianism is very amply represented. It is worthy to note the pianistic difficulty of Liszt's music and its link to his own art as a performer, since this is a most important facet of the presented program. Liszt created his own glory, by performing predominantly his own works and indulging his need to express brilliant artistry and intensely expressed imposing form, enriching his piano composition with phenomenal, for its time, innovative technical methods and effectiveness.

Liszt's innovative pianism is recreated by Vartanian in the spirit of the composer himself, who, in spite of the exceptional virtuosity of his creativity subjugates technique, especially in his final years, to the embodiment of artistic meaning. This gave birth to a conscientiously free treatment of musical text and a demand for directness of expression of feeling. Liszt never tired of reiterating that a performer is not a slave of the composer, he transmits not only what is created by others, but he also creates something of his own- he shows his relation to what is being performed.

The interesting, specific features of Vartanian's performance style - for example, the delineation of polyphonic elements, inner voices, temporal and inflectional freedom, a feeling and a sensing of the whole entity - are, undoubtedly, achieved by way of a profound and organic attainment of Liszt's pianism. This makes the performance significantly richer in concept and more “polyphonic” and allows it to enhance the undivided aspects of reading of the musical text.

Speaking of the dramatism of Vartanian's two programs dedicated to Liszt's output, we turn our attention to their closing. Both of them end, respectively, with Liszt's brilliant paraphrases “Variations Bravour on a theme by Glinka” (in Vartanian's arrangement) and Reminiscences de Don Juan. The huge number of piano transcriptions, created by Liszt, compel one to seriously question his famous quote: “to see one's goal within one's self, not from without one's self”.

The romantic principle of submersion in one's own spiritual universe, allows for extra-personal sources nourishing one's fantasy.

For Liszt, this was also a characteristic of the epoch, contributing to an enrichment of artistic thinking and also a tribute to the recognition of great creators and an expression of a spiritual connection with them. In this was revealed the breadth of his intellectual, spiritual and creative horizon, as well as his particular affinity with the variation form. To take a theme and make it blossom, turn its several facets around and enrich it with his own vision- that is the objective of the composer. Such works, as a rule, bear in Liszt the character of effective short pieces, fantasies. Turning to “Don Juan”, Liszt builds his “fantasia” on the contraposition of concepts of inevitable fate (the theme of the Commendatore) and the sparkling bliss and joy of life (variations on a theme of the duet between Don Juan and Zerlina and the theme from Don Juan's “Champagne Aria”). The effective colouring and the brilliant virtuosity on the Variations on a theme by Glinka, the Tchernomor's March, is so enhanced by Vazgen Vartanian that this is effectively a tribute to Liszt's artistic nature and proof of his veneration for the composer.

Tatyana Razbeglova
Translation: Antonio Gomes

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