For a long time I dismissed Franz Liszt as pianistic masturbation. For me his music was too bombastic, too over the top, too virtuosic for the sake of virtuosity. He was the Jerry Bruckheimer of piano music: gratuitous special effects, loud explosions, girls in bikinis–not much substance, but always a crowd pleaser.
I think differently now. First, I’ve relaxed, become less a stick in the mud. What’s wrong with a Jerry Bruckheimer movie after all? Sometimes what you need is a good brainless action movie. Why force yourself to watch a Seventh Seal when only an Armageddon will hit the spot?
Mostly, I’ve realized how unfair I was being to Liszt. He can write an action filled, crowd pleasing piece, sure, but many of them have lots of substance too: think Dante sonata or the second piano concerto. And if some pieces are a bit masturbatory, well, what’s wrong with a little masturbation every once in a while? It’s probably healthy.
Take the second Hungarian Rhapsody, for one. It’s one of those pieces that everybody knows (thank you Tom and Jerry), and probably the best example of Lisztian pianistic excesses and pyrotechnics. I hated this piece for so long, thought it had no merit, and always wondered why audiences loved it.
Fast forward to a couple months ago, when the piece came suddenly to my mind. I was on a Wagner kick and out of curiosity decided to check out some Liszt’s Wagner transcriptions. It led to a rediscovery of the second Hungarian rhapsody, more specifically Horowitz’s performance of the second Hungarian rhapsody.
It was recorded live and I found myself enchanted from the beginning. Horowitz plays the piece with such personality, it was easy to hear the enchanting “gypsy” woman seducing her listeners accompanied by a flirtatious violinist at the beginning of the piece.
Then the famous fast section starts and I was delighted. Horowitz uses that section as an extended improvisation. He does almost nothing that Liszt actually wrote. He combines themes together in interesting ways, he adds more virtuosic flourishes, and makes the piece entirely his own. I laughed at all his additions; they were so clever and fun. I even loved the sloppiness of Horowtiz’s execution. Many of the scales were a complete mess and some of the passage work not as clear, but these so called mistakes only added charm to the performance. It made it more personal, more a unique Horowitz experience.
In a weird way, Horowitz’s performance made me respect Liszt more. Sure the Horowitz made the rhapsody his own, but there was still a lot of Liszt in it. Liszt made room for others to insert themselves into his piece, yet was still strong enough to not erase his presence altogether. It’s an ideal collaboration between composer and performer that is very Baroque in a way. Liszt wrote the piece one way and expected others to play it their own way. That expectation led to the Horowitz performance and created an experience that was ballsy, full of new touches, yet still familiar.