Thursday, May 7, 2009

Liszt and self-indulgence

Today on my Pennario Web log I found myself talking about a walk I took yesterday to the beach. I was listening to Jorge Bolet, pictured above, playing Liszt's arrangement of the overture to Wagner's "Tannhauser."

They were playing that on the Historic Pianists podcast out of Aspen Public Radio. The host, Andrew Todd, advised us not to try this at home. Ha, ha!

When I got home I found the Bolet recording on YouTube. It is here!

The second part of it is here.

There is no Great Pianists of the 20th Century CD set devoted to Leonard Pennario. Grrrrr. Boooooooooooo! Well, one day that will surely change.

I have a confession to make. I love these overblown Liszt treatments.

Once I asked my piano teacher, Stephen Manes, if I could play the Liszt arrangement of the Prelude and Liebestod from "Tristan und Isolde." Stephen said oh, Mary, that is so self-indulgent.

I went running to Earl Wild. I told him what Stephen had said. OK, full disclosure: I was calling Earl Wild to interview him for the paper. But I could not resist phrasing it the way I did. Because it was not long after I had that conversation, about "Tristan."

Earl Wild thought Stephen was out of line.

He said: "What's wrong with being self-indulgent?"

What a great philosophy to have!

Stephen gave me the Berg sonata to play instead and I have to say, it was a satisfactory substitute. I grew to love that strip tease of a piece, I will say that.

But I still would like to play "Tristan."

What's wrong with being self-indulgent? Wild is right.

Here is the man himself playing Liszt.


  1. I think that the best way to think of the Liszt adaptations is that they're original compositions by Liszt, regardless of the source. They did expose his audiences to wonderful music (think of the Schubert dances in the Soirees de Vienne) that the listeners of his day might never have heard (no recordings, radio, etc. in Liszt's day). I'm also snarky enough to think that the pianists who sneer at them simply don't have big enough techniques to play them, and are jealous of those that can. Sorry, Mr. Manes.

  2. Liszt was such a giant figure we can't even SEE him. As John Ogdon wrote, Liszt "broke the Germanic stranglehold on music, and scattered the seeds of musical invention to the four winds." And as for Leonard Pennario being ignored by the Great Pianists series, he is in good company: