“Le concert, c’est moi.” When Liszt wrote to the Princess Belgiojoso that, in this pronouncement, he was affecting the style of Louis XIV, he had just launched a new type of public concert: the solo recital.1 To be precise, the announcement in London used the plural “Recitals on the Pianoforte,” starting on June 9, 1840—recitations of pieces of music, testimonies, one would guess, to both Liszt’s declamatory playing and the romantic closeness of music and poetry. Hitherto, soloists contributed to a program that employed a variety of participants, including an orchestra. Joint recitals, fairly rare these days, were still somewhat frequent at the beginning of our century, when Busoni shared a concert platform with Ysaÿe or Melba.
Between each “recitation” Liszt went to talk with people in his audience, a habit we have fortunately shed. (Another discontinued habit of old days, and a rather endearing one, was to modulate, arpeggiando, from one piece to the next; Wilhelm Backhaus still improvised discreetly in this manner.) While Liszt’s newly created recitals may have lasted a couple of hours, some of Anton Rubinstein’s mammoth programs of the 1890s cannot possibly have taken less than three. Today we have settled on concerts of roughly eighty minutes’ playing time, forty in each half. Of course, there may be the odd exception of a longer one, or a different balancing out of the two halves, should an oversized work like Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations demand it.
How ought these eighty minutes to be filled? Of two standard program schemes that come to mind, the old-fashioned one treated a program like a menu: starter (or soup) and main course, followed by various salads and puddings, and topped by omelette flambée. Artur Schnabel, in Music and the Line of Most Resistance (1942), wrote extensively about, and against, such musical meals. According to him,
the first condition of a good menu is that all dishes should be prepared by the same chef or several chefs of equal merit; that all should be prepared with first-class raw materials, and that the gourmet should concentrate with the same seriousness on all of them!
The usual concert menu is far removed from these requirements. In my younger and more wicked days I invented, for an encyclopedia, a list of compositions which included a work entitled “Suite gastronomique“; during its last movement an omelette is supposed to be set alight on the performer’s head. The bald virtuoso to whom it is dedicated has so far declined to give it a try.
The other standard program scheme proceeds in a roughly historical order. Yet the reverse, or an apt historical mixture, is equally justified. I would accept no hard and fast rule in program-making except one: that works in the same key should not follow one another. A varied succession of keys is required to stimulate the listener’s attention. If the whole recital does not have a true key scheme, its sequence of pieces should at least be checked for suitability. I maintain, as Artur Schnabel did, that it is a mistake to play Mozart’s C minor Fantasy K.475 and the C minor Sonata K.457 in one go. That they were published in one volume proves nothing. Each of these works is an autonomous masterpiece; together, they cancel each other out.
An entire evening in one basic key is even more tedious. I once heard Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 106 played after Schubert’s D.960, both in B flat. It turned out to be a miscalculation on every possible level. Even the succession of major and minor on the same tonic tends to be, in larger works, precarious. A combination as tempting as that of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and his last sonata, Op. 111, should therefore be ruled out. But there is yet another reason: for both works, the only position within a program that seems to me permissible is at the end. The Diabelli Variations presents a complete universe, while Op. 111 leads irreversibly into silence. Encores, for that matter, are out of the question. I remember once seeing an advertisement for a recital that started with Op. 111 and continued with the Liszt Sonata. I cannot recall how the program went on after the interval, and prefer not to recall the pianist.
The idea that recitals have to end brilliantly or mightily belongs to the past. If I ask myself how they should begin, my first advice would be to avoid pieces that may break the player’s neck. To sit down and throw oneself into Schumann’s Toccata may prove too much for even the most dexterous and cold-blooded of virtuosos. On the other hand, it would never have occurred to me to start a Beethoven cycle with Op. 28, as Schnabel apparently did. For this most relaxed of sonata beginnings I prefer to have settled down and thoroughly acquainted myself with the instrument. If I caution the player against immediately daring the devil, I do not want to imply that I can tolerate the notion of the “warming-up piece.” This notion suggests to me that the player has not seen fit to try out the piano or that the initial piece need not be taken quite seriously. Right away, the player ought to be fully involved and challenge the audience to share his or her concentration. Instead of playing down to an audience, the player should make the audience “listen up.”
Good programs are based on sufficient contrast. But they usually also reveal connections. Obvious connections are demonstrated when specimens of certain forms like the sonata, or of freer concepts like the fantasy, are assembled. In such programs the diversity of possible solutions within a concept should become apparent. My own debut recital ambitiously offered a choice of works from Bach to the present day, all containing fugues. Busoni, in 1909, toyed with the idea of two entire dance programs, the outlines of which are given in a letter to Egon Petri.2 As for a full recital of variations, here prudence is required. I have tried out, and discarded, a program of Beethoven’s Opp. 34, 35, and 120 sets. The only successful variation program I could possibly think of is that of Mozart’s Duport Variations, Brahms’s D minor variations from his String Sextet Op. 18 (in his own transcription for Clara Schumann), Liszt’s Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, and, once again, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations—works in which the diversity of the short span is absorbed in a comprehensive psychological whole. Each of these sets is markedly different in its basic character—graceful, heroic, suffering, humorous—as well as in the technical treatment of its common formal idea.
Connections and contrasts of another sort were laid out in a program in which I tried to make a case for late Liszt. It started with a selection of eight of his late pieces, interrupted in the middle of Schoenberg’s Six Little Pieces Op. 19 or, alternatively, Bartók’s Naenies. Half an evening of late Liszt should, I imagined, prove not only possible but highly rewarding. The juxtaposition with short twentieth-century works would underline Liszt’s modernity. After this group of pieces, united in their opposition to classicism and functional harmony, the second part of the recital was given over to examples of neoclassicism and neobaroque: Busoni’s Toccata and Brahms’s Handel Variations. Busoni, having absorbed influences of Liszt and Brahms, could be seen to have united both worlds in the central Fantasia of his Toccata.
Depending on the performer’s ability to switch from one style to the next, a program of extreme contrasts can be hugely satisfying. On paper, the idea of putting three of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies between Fantasies by Bach and the Diabelli Variations may seem perverse. In reality, the profane complements the sublime. Not only do Liszt’s pieces hold their own surprisingly well; they also reveal, in their quasi-improvised introductions, Liszt’s familiarity with Bach’s improvisatory fantasies, and link Liszt’s virtuosity with that of Beethoven. After all, the Diabelli Variations display, besides various other things, a considerable amount of bravura.
It is amazing to what degree works (and composers) can be shown, by the context in which they appear, in a new light. If, in a program of well-matched Haydn and Beethoven sonatas, Haydn’s are played first and last, they are given a new status and might be listened to with different ears. When Beethoven’s “Appassionata” is presented—after works such as Haydn’s G minor Sonata, Brahms’s Ballades Op. 10, Weber’s Sonata in A flat and Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses—as the evening’s conclusion, it almost sounds like a different piece, and certainly feels different under my fingers. This program has a double effect: it upgrades not only a number of undervalued or lesser-known masterpieces but also the “Appassionata” itself. Not that I have ever been one of those who have become wary of this great work’s “heroic” attitude, resentful of its popularity, or doubtful about its place among Beethoven’s special achievements. But hearing it in close connection with Weber, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, composers who beside, or after, Beethoven had to find a voice of their own, may produce the sensation of watching all the pieces of a puzzle come together, and grasping what completeness is about. (Note: Weber’s strangely neglected Sonata, the one basically graceful and radiant work in this generally dark program, is placed in the middle.)
Among the programs that I particularly enjoy playing are those that feature one composer only. When Clara Schumann heard Anton Rubinstein perform four Beethoven sonatas in one evening she deemed it inartistic. “Doesn’t one Beethoven sonata need one’s entire soul? How, then, could one play four sonatas in a row with one’s entire soul?”3 On top of this, Rubinstein added a fifth as an encore. Unimaginable what Mendelssohn or Robert Schumann would have said. Bülow’s feat of playing Beethoven’s last five sonatas en suite would have given Clara a heart attack. Admittedly, in taking on such an exhausting program Bülow overstated his case. But, in his time, certain late works by Beethoven were still the property of a few—and every generation seems to have its endurance tests. (At present, Messiaen’s Vingt regards and Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke might qualify.)
If the right composers and works are chosen, one-composer programs should be far from monotonous. To me, there is a parallel with the major exhibition of a painter. Does he gain in stature when his pictures fill several rooms, or will this reduce the pleasure that we derived from seeing a few of his works interspersed between those of other artists? Here is my personal choice of keyboard composers whom I would volunteer to listen to on their own: Bach, Scarlatti, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, and Schoenberg. Others would probably add Brahms, Debussy, Bartók, and Messiaen; or Alkan, Ravel, Scriabin, and Rachmaninoff. I should advise against Carl Czerny, though—and I know what I am talking about; in the 1950s I had to sit through an all-Czerny recital which was delivered with missionary zeal by a friend of mine.
The range of what a great composer can express seems mysteriously incompatible with his limitations as a visible, and tangible, human being. I cannot imagine anything more thrilling than to explore that range. In works suited to fill a whole series of concerts, such wealth and breadth become gloriously evident—always provided that the performances rise to the occasion. At the same time, the individual character of each work is etched more clearly. Concerts in a cycle differ from single ones. In a cycle, most of the audience remains the same. There is a feeling of sharing, a cumulative effect, the experience of a spiritual journey jointly undertaken with the performer. With the end of the cycle, a goal has been reached.
While Schubert cycles are a relatively recent venture, and the first Mozart concerto cycle I know of was launched by Ernst von Dohnányi as late as 1941, all of Beethoven’s sonatas had already been performed in the 1840s by Sir Charles Hallé, in 1873 by Liszt’s pupil Marie Jaëll, and in the 1890s by Eugène d’Albert and Edouard Risler. Busoni’s six Liszt recitals in Berlin in 1911 accomplished something that none of Liszt’s own students had ever dared attempt. The first great pianist to survey the “history of piano music” in seven recitals was Anton Rubinstein (1885-1886). In the Beethoven program of his series he surpassed himself, and even Bülow, by playing, in one go, Opp. 27 No. 2, 31 No. 2, 53, 57, 101, 109, and 111. Since the last war, Beethoven’s sonatas have sometimes been done chronologically, a practice I find rather pedantic. Those who are interested in the evolution of Beethoven’s style and range can pursue it with the help of records. In the concert hall, well-balanced contrast and a variety of style in each recital seem to me preferable. I would favor careful placement of the minor-key sonatas (a minority of nine), and the distribution of the five late sonatas on different evenings.
Recital programs may have to accommodate various necessities. What did I play when I visited a certain city the last time? What would I like to add to my repertory? Which works have been agreed on for future recording? Which twentieth-century works do I include? Is the recital part of a programmatic series, needing to be adjusted accordingly? Do I want to comply? Of such pressures and queries, a good program should reveal nothing. Even if it subscribes to a guiding idea, a program is a balancing act. The balancing is done mainly by instinct, helped by experience. More often than not, programs explain, or justify, themselves only in retrospect. A basic disposition—whether to play it safe or to administer a dose of disquieting surprise to the public—will leave its imprint on the entire enterprise.
In choice of repertory, two extreme positions are embodied by the player of hits and the player of oddities. The hit player, persuading himself that the best is also the best loved, caters for the biggest public attendance. The player of the uncommon works, on the contrary, resents popularity as debasing or shies away from competition in the established field. Programs of rarely performed works can be highly sophisticated and illuminating, or wonderfully dotty, as with the violin solo arrangement (if I may, for a moment, switch my attention from pianists to string players) of Wagner’s Siegfried dedicated to Cosima Wagner and performed at Wahnfried. The three final sections of this work, arguably one of the most indispensable one-man shows and one-composer programs ever to hit the eardrum, were named: “Siegfried on Top of Brünnhilde’s Rock,” “Siegfried Awakens Brünnhilde” and, presumably in double stops, “Siegfried and Brünnhilde.” A close contender might be the piano recital given in Vienna in 1926 by a certain Wilhelm Bund. It started with a lecture in which Bund criticized the Viennese critics—all mentioned by name in the printed program—and ended with a composition by Bund described as follows:
Longing to die in voluptuousness—rearing and sinking back, shimmy-foxtrot as song of destiny, orgiastic dance (disrupted), exclamations of desire, desperate struggle, apoplexy.
While such programs are collectors’ items, there are those that betray a collector’s obsessive mind. We have the collector of fast notes, chords and octaves, of which as many as possible have to be delivered per second and square inch; and the player of miniatures (Lozelachs, to use a Viennese prewar term) who, abhorring larger structures, deals exclusively with musical bric-a-brac. Of these, Paul de Conne, a pupil of Anton Rubinstein and specialist in arranging tricky passages for fragile hands, piled up in one recital twenty-three pieces by seventeen composers, if I may trust my informant.
I would not want to bully anybody into anything. But I feel it ought to be a matter of personal pride for younger performers to play a fair share of the new repertory, and for older ones whose resilience may betray signs of erosion at least to listen to new works, and live in their aura. Among all the programs I could name, those promoting important new music get my highest marks. Of course, since we live in an imperfect world, the attention and credit such concerts earn is often scanty. Few all-around performers will be able to muster the heroic dedication and specialized skills that are required to cope with a recent work like Ligeti’s admirable Etudes. Yet this is precisely one of the tasks that a gifted young player should try to work at. To someone like myself who, as a performer, is absorbed by playing the old but enjoys listening to what is new with passionate curiosity, there is some consolation: the old does not simply have to be well lit and expertly preserved, like Titians in a museum. It continuously needs to be brought to life, and related to our own time. If handled rightly, the result should be far removed from musical consumerism and mental sloth. Ideally, the performer should champion the neglected and the new along with established masterworks, and by no means exclude famous pieces just because they are famous. In his programs, Maurizio Pollini has admirably stayed this course.
The piano literature, even if we only consider its finest works, is too extensive to be mastered by a single player. An intelligent and far-sighted choice of repertory is therefore paramount. Which are the works that one can plead for with conviction, that one hopes to grow into, that one would want to spend a lifetime with? Which is the music players can discover, or audiences ought to notice? Recitalists are rhetoricians; they have something publicly to convey. In classical rhetoric the main propositions are to instruct, to move, and to amuse. The performer should not dodge the obligation to be edifying. His sense of quality has to inform the audience. In his programming, he should not give in to commercial demands. The more uncompromisingly a performer follows his own convictions, the better for his self-esteem and, in the long run, the esteem in which he is held by others.
“Le concert, c’est moi“? The program is the player’s visiting card. But make no mistake—an intelligent, ingenious program does not guarantee convincing performances. It still needs to be projected, generating a spiritual link between composers and listeners but also turning into an intense physical experience, an event unique and unrepeatable, tied to the day and hour, the sound of the hall and instrument, the sudden burst of sweat in a spasm of anxiety, and the bravely stifled coughing fit. All being well, the executant’s grasp of his program and his audience will be surpassed by the grip of an unseen hand that keeps its hold over player and listeners alike for the duration of a few timeless moments.
November 22, 1990
See Alan Walker: Franz Liszt: The Virtuoso Years, 1811–1847 (Knopf, 1983), p. 356. ↩
See Antony Beaumont: Ferruccio Busoni: Selected Letters (Faber, 1987), pp. 96–97. ↩
Clara Schumann’s diary entry for February 18, 1893. See Clara Schumann: An Artist’s Life from Diaries and Letters, Grace Green, ed. (Vienna House, 1972). ↩