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Is Liszt's Piano Music Really Pianistic?

Posted By: SiFi

Is Liszt's Piano Music Really Pianistic? - 07/06/19 06:58 AM

Full title: Is Liszt's piano music pianistic or just ridiculously difficult?

So I'm on a big Liszt learning binge right now, mostly Années de pèlerinage stuff. Full disclosure: I swore off Liszt after not fully mastering Feux Follets in my teens and suffering the depression that results from such failure. But now I'm back in the fray. And it's exciting.

I'm learning 3 pieces from the Années de pèlerinage series and having a total blast with them. However, what I keep encountering are passages that seem "unpianistic". In other words, they appear to be unnecessarily difficult. But then when I deconstruct those passages and start doing the metronome routine, all of a sudden I can play them (OK I'm talking about such things as the octaves in Vallée d'Obermann and the big sequence passages in Jeux d'eau.)

Everyone I know says that Chopin wrote "for the piano" like no other composer. I just wonder whether that accolade should more appropriately be bestowed on Liszt. Let's stipulate that the 1837 version of the transcendentals was an aberration, along with the 1838 version of the Paganini etudes; the rest is pure gold, no?

Here's my hypothesis. Chopin's piano music is always pianistic in the sense that we understand that concept, but is on the whole extremely difficult to play well; Liszt's piano music is on the whole extremely difficult to play per se but is to professionally abled performers pianistic in a way that makes the technical problems conveniently surmountable and, ergo, allows the performer to more efficiently deliver the aesthetic message of the music itself. (I am so sorry for the egregious split infinitives.)

Did I get this right or horribly wrong?
Posted By: Hakki

Re: Is Liszt's Piano Music Really Pianistic? - 07/06/19 07:09 AM

IMO Chopin's music fall under the hands better.
But if you have practiced a lot of Czerny, scales, octaves and have good finger dexterity and octave technique, then Liszt's music is more straightforward to play than Chopin.
For Chopin, IMO it is also necessary to develop the technique that is needed to play Chopin.
IMO the main difficulty in Liszt is speed. One really has to have the chops to pull it off.
Posted By: rmns2bseen

Re: Is Liszt's Piano Music Really Pianistic? - 07/06/19 07:18 AM

I love both Chopin and Liszt, and as far as difficulty is concerned Chopin can be pretty tough in his own right. But I think Liszt had the more "expansive" musical mind. I think Liszt was thinking orchestrally much of the time (though not always), while Chopin was content to let the piano be a piano (though again not always).
Posted By: SiFi

Re: Is Liszt's Piano Music Really Pianistic? - 07/06/19 07:36 AM

Originally Posted by rmns2bseen
I think Liszt had the more "expansive" musical mind. I think Liszt was thinking orchestrally much of the time (though not always), while Chopin was content to let the piano be a piano (though again not always).

I think that is a hugely relevant observation.
Posted By: Sidokar

Re: Is Liszt's Piano Music Really Pianistic? - 07/06/19 12:05 PM

I always felt Chopin to be more melodic and Liszt indeed more orchestral, sort of more magistral and grand. The technical elements in Chopin are completely blended into the music so I do not see his music as virtuosic for the sake of it. With Liszt, the virtuosic parts sometimes stand out as if added on purpose, as if Liszt couldnt help but had to have some difficulty imbedded.
Posted By: NobleHouse

Re: Is Liszt's Piano Music Really Pianistic? - 07/06/19 05:35 PM

Originally Posted by SiFi
Originally Posted by rmns2bseen
I think Liszt had the more "expansive" musical mind. I think Liszt was thinking orchestrally much of the time (though not always), while Chopin was content to let the piano be a piano (though again not always).

I think that is a hugely relevant observation.


thumb As someone who loves all of Liszt and enjoys all of Chopin, I think this observation is apt.
Posted By: AaronSF

Re: Is Liszt's Piano Music Really Pianistic? - 07/06/19 08:43 PM

Originally Posted by SiFi
Originally Posted by rmns2bseen
I think Liszt had the more "expansive" musical mind. I think Liszt was thinking orchestrally much of the time (though not always), while Chopin was content to let the piano be a piano (though again not always).

I think that is a hugely relevant observation.


Couldn't agree more. As a consequence much of Liszt's piano music sound less like pieces composed directly for the piano and more like piano reductions of orchestral pieces to me. Chopin's piano music is idiosyncratic to the piano. Many of Beethoven's sonatas have an orchestral quality, but ultimately (to me) they sound like characteristic piano pieces where Beethoven has stretched to the outer limits what the piano can do and still sound like a piano. Brahms and Debussy both composed piano pieces that make use of the piano's unique abilities. Faure, too. Which is to say, as fun as Liszt's piano pieces can me, there are other composers (IMHO) who composed better for the piano's inherent strengths and weaknesses.
Posted By: ronde des sylphes

Re: Is Liszt's Piano Music Really Pianistic? - 07/06/19 09:02 PM

I have to say that, as far as I'm concerned, Liszt's writing is significantly more pianistic than Chopin's in the harder works, with the caveat that things like the 1837 TEs and the 1838 Paganinis are on a different level.

Often when Liszt has written something which *looks* difficult on the page, a bit of work will reveal an internal logic to the passage, which, once understood, renders it surprisingly playable. I'd say that Chopin writes "against the hand" far more often than Liszt does, and Liszt is skilled at extracting pianistic effect in a relatively economical manner (particularly once you get into the middle period of his life). Of course, all ths being said, the pianist needs to have good octaves and arpeggios and, probably to a lesser extent, scales: but these are after all the building blocks of good technique.
Posted By: achoo42

Re: Is Liszt's Piano Music Really Pianistic? - 08/08/19 02:11 PM

You're right for the most part. Liszt's music is often very pianistic. Often it will have a high degree of mechanical difficulty but once you get there, you have it.

He's very good at making things sound much harder than they are. Chopin is generally pretty pianistic as well, just look as his etudes; horribly difficult until you have the technique for them. Schumann, on the other hand, is awkward to play no matter what, even his "easy-sounding" pieces. Don't play Schumann if you want something pianistic!
Posted By: Sweelinck

Re: Is Liszt's Piano Music Really Pianistic? - 08/16/19 05:58 AM

I find Brahms to be very un-pianistic, though I love his music.
Posted By: WhoDwaldi

Re: Is Liszt's Piano Music Really Pianistic? - 08/16/19 02:53 PM

I'm not sure where the research, the HIP people, stand on all this most recently, but I think the key to it is square piano vs. modern piano.

We (almost?) get to the modern concert grand with Liszt, with all its orchestral qualities . . . and lots of tremolos. Chopin is more bel canto, florid, intimate. But he really understood how it make things fall under the fingers, back in the keys.
Posted By: Tim Adrianson

Re: Is Liszt's Piano Music Really Pianistic? - 08/16/19 07:44 PM

Hi, SiFi -- Two comments regarding your hypothesis --

My understanding is that Liszt was an exceptionally hard worker at the piano in his youth, spending several hours a day perfecting all the technical skills associated with the emerging modern piano. And so to me, it is likely that what even accomplished pianists regarded as virtually unplayable passages, he could in fact perform, and with musical grace. In that sense, I compare him to Art Tatum, the Jazz pianist whose technical feats at breakneck speeds were legendary, but who also spent several hours per day maintaining his craft -- that is to say, there was a great deal of perspiration in addition to exceptional natural ability.

From a composition standpoint, I tend to agree most with writer/pianist Charles Rosen, who suggested that Liszt's greatest contribution to piano literature was his introduction of new pianistic soundscapes, new possibilities in attaining orchestral breadth, and across the entire range of the keyboard, and much of that derived from the prodigious technical challenges that sometimes only he could achieve. And I think again of Tatum in the Jazz world -- jaw-dropping feats of technical wizardry in his performances of American Songbook Standards.

And so -- unpianistic? With Liszt, not really -- in the sense that, for example, some piano reduction scores of orchestral pieces can be virtually unplayable or at best clumsy if approached literally. But much of his output does presuppose complete command of technical challenges at the keyboard -- i.e., you HAVE to have major "chops" to present his music effectively.
Posted By: rmns2bseen

Re: Is Liszt's Piano Music Really Pianistic? - 08/16/19 10:51 PM

Originally Posted by Tim Adrianson

...
And so -- unpianistic? With Liszt, not really -- in the sense that, for example, some piano reduction scores of orchestral pieces can be virtually unplayable or at best clumsy if approached literally. But much of his output does presuppose complete command of technical challenges at the keyboard -- i.e., you HAVE to have major "chops" to present his music effectively.

I love Liszt's transcriptions of seven Bach organ works. Liszt doesn't inject himself into the music as much as some later transcribers did. They're pretty faithful and provide something of an illusion of the organ's grandeur - although of course a replication of that on a piano is impossible. But it does sound "pianistic" and it sometimes gives me the feeling that this is what Bach might have sounded like if he had known the modern piano. I think Liszt's transcriptions of Beethoven's symphonies are also really good, though I've never tried to play any of them. In short I believe Liszt was usually thinking more "musically" than strictly pianistically most of the time.
Posted By: kbrod1

Re: Is Liszt's Piano Music Really Pianistic? - 08/16/19 11:05 PM

I tried my hands at Feux Follets 40 plus years ago and it was depressingly beyond my capabilities and I thought I was quite good at the time technically. Fortunately I was able to listen to Lazar Berman's reissue that was new to the US then of the set and forget my sorrows. The album also had the 3rd Rhapsody and a phenomenal Spanish Rhapsody which before that I thought was trash but he made it fantastic.
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