Giovanni Bertolazzi Liberal Club ‘En Blanc et Noir’ 5th June 2023

Ludwig van Beethoven

Sonata no. 4 in E-flat major, Op. 7

I. Allegro molto e con brio

II. Largo, con gran espressione

III. Allegro

IV. Rondo: Poco allegretto e grazioso


Ferenc Liszt

Totentanz: Paraphrase on Dies Irae, S. 525

Recueillement. Vincenzo Bellini in memoriam, S. 204

Hungarian Rhapsody no. 12 in C-sharp minor, S: 244/12

Sonata no. 4 in E flat major, opus 7: Beethoven himself named this pianoforte sonata Grande Sonate because it was published by itself in 1797 – unusual for the time. It remains his second-longest sonata, behind the Hammerklavier Sonata op 106. Beethoven’s pupil (and Liszt’s teacher) Carl Czerny wrote: “The epithet appassionata would fit much better to the Sonata in E flat op. 7, which he wrote in a very impassioned mood”. It may be that the reason behind such passionate music was the composer’s attraction for his dedicatee, the then 16-year-old pupil Anna Luise Barbara Countess von Keglevich, and it is possible be that her father had commissioned Beethoven to write the work for her.

Painting of Ludwig Van Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler made in the year 1820

Totentanz (Dance of the Dead): Paraphrase on the ‘Dies irae’, S126 for pianoforte and orchestra is notable for being based on the Gregorian hymn Dies irae as well as for its many stylistic innovations. The piece was completed and published in 1849, and later revised twice (1853-9 and early 1880s. All these versions were also prepared for two pianos). In the late 1860s, Liszt published a version for pianoforte solo, S525. Some of the titles of Liszt’s pieces, such as Totentanz, Funérailles, La lugubre gondola and Pensée des morts show the composer’s obsession with mortality, as well as his profound Christian faith, these things being apparent from Liszt as a teenager right up until his last days – more than 50 years later.

The Dance of Death (Totentanz) from Liber Chronicarum [Nuremberg Chronicle], 1493, attr. to Michael Wolgemut

In the last movement of the Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz the medieval (Gregorian) Dies Irae is quoted in a shockingly modernistic manner. In 1830 Liszt attended the first performance of the symphony and was struck by its powerful originality. Liszt’s Totentanz presents a series of variations on the Dies irae – a theme that his will have known since 1830 at the latest from Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. As an early biographer noted, “Every variation discloses some new character―the earnest man, the flighty youth, the scornful doubter, the prayerful monk, the daring soldier, the tender maiden, the playful child.” A second theme, beginning at variation 6 – taken from the Prose des morts in the Catholic breviary – is itself varied before the first theme returns at the end of the work.

Recueillement (Recollection), S204 (1877) was a gift to the Italian composer Lauro Rossi. It weaves arpeggios around a rising scale before settling into very simple, chordal writing. Written in memoriam Vincenzo Bellini (of whom Liszt had made famous paraphrases of his opera Norma, La sonnambula and I puritani, as well as the variations Hexaméron, on another theme from I puritani). Simplicity and sensitivity before a final salute from the older Liszt, dispelling any image of earlier keyboard wizardry, but revealing nonetheless the author of some of the most naturally grateful and percipient pianoforte music of all time.

The twelfth of the nineteen Rapsodies hongroises, S244/12 (c1847) is dedicated to Josef Joachim (who was Liszt’s principal violinst in the Wemar court orchestra, and with whom he later made a version of the piece for violin and pianoforte) is one of the most often played in recital and was a work that Anton Rubinstein and other great virtuosi would often include in their programmes. Liszt draws on five different folk themes to produce one of his most ingenious Hungarian Rhapsodies. It offers a unique mix of melancholy, glittering keyboard acrobatics and stormy, rousing dance. It became so popular that the original version was later arranged for orchestra, and for pianoforte four hands. Liszt collected Hungarian folk-songs and Zigeunermusik over many years – without particularly distinguishing between folk-song and gypsy band ‘standards’, and he was strongly influenced by this music that he had heard from his earliest days, with its unique gypsy scale, rhythmic spontaneity and direct, seductive expression. He went on major song collecting expeditions in 1840 and 1846, and he knew many composers of gypsy tunes, who often transpired to be members of the Hungarian upper middle class. The large scale structure of each was influenced by the verbunkos, a Hungarian dance form in several parts, each with a different tempo. Within this structure, Liszt preserved the two main structural elements of typical Gypsy improvisation―the lassan (“slow”) and the friska (“fast”).

Liszt’s hand

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