October 22, 2011 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Franz Liszt. The Hungarian-born pianist was revered in his time as perhaps the greatest who had ever lived. Liszt was also a composer, conductor, and teacher. It could be argued that Liszt was the first “rock star” as well. When he heard that plans for a Beethoven monument were in danger of being scrapped due to lack of funds, he began touring incessantly. He performed across Europe for eight years, and became supremely popular.
In fact, it was during this time that a new, and very strange phenomena first occurred. Newspapers called it “Lisztmania,” and it swept the Continent. Hysterical women fought over his silk handkerchiefs and velvet gloves, which were torn to pieces to become souvenirs. It is said that his electrifying stage presence led his audience into a nearly hypnotic state. While two centuries may have lessened this type of rabid devotion, the passage of time has not at all diminished his influence in classical music.
In honor of this bicentennial of Liszt‘s birth, Sony Classical is celebrating with a slew of Liszt releases. One of these is the brilliant four-disc Horowitz Plays Liszt collection. It is a masterful pairing, as Vladimir Horowitz is considered by many to be the greatest pianist of the twentieth century. The two share not only accolades, but approaches to interpreting music as well.
As Camille Saint-Saens said of Liszt, “He did not superimpose his will on the composer’s, but endeavored to reach only the heart of the music and lay bare its true meaning.” This semi-improvisational method was applied by Horowitz to the music of Liszt. “How do I know what I think until I hear what I play?” he asked his critics. As mentioned in the accompanying booklet, “He [Horowitz] enjoyed living dangerously.”
He was also very particular in the Liszt pieces he chose to perform. In this collection there are numerous duplicate selections. For instance, there are no fewer than five different takes on Valse oubliee No. 1, recorded in 1930, 1951 (two versions), 1975, and 1986. There are two of Au bord d’une source (1949 and 1975), two of Petrarch Sonnet No. 104 (1951 and 1986), and two of the B Minor Sonata (1949 and 1977).
While all of this material has been previously released on various labels, this collection provides an outstanding opportunity to hear the compositions of the 19th century’s finest pianist played by the 20th century’s finest pianist.