Skip to main content

 Interview, Boris Giltburg on Liszt

Boris GiltburgHot on the heels of a series of acclaimed recordings of Russian repertoire, Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg has now turned to Liszt's proverbially challenging Transcendental Études - works which push the technique of even the most accomplished pianist to its limits, while at the same time embodying a profound musicality that goes far beyond mere empty showmanship.

I spoke to Boris earlier in the week about these formidable works, and about Liszt's unique place in classical history as a superstar, feted all over Europe in his day in a way that has often been compared to Beatlemania and other musicians' cult followings.

There are plenty of studies and études around, but not many are billed as “transcendental”. What do you think the significance is of Liszt’s description of the set?

They’re usually translated into English as “transcendental studies”, but the original title is Études d'exécution transcendante, which may be more correctly rendered as “studies for superlative execution”, ie with the adjective “transcendental” applying to the execution, not to the studies themselves. And even that can be interpreted in several ways; that you need superlative execution to play them, but also with the implication that you can acquire such technique by mastering these études.

And the way that Liszt writes for the keyboard in these études is transcendent in the sense of exploring hitherto unknown territory, both in terms of dynamics and in the way he physically pushes the extremes of the keyboard: several of the études have variants that were only to be played if the pianist possessed an extended keyboard, one similar to the modern-sized one but which was not standard at that time. The version which we tend to play is the third revision of the études; the very first version goes back to Liszt’s teenage years. In terms of textures and execution they are worlds apart, but what I found quite touching is that the actual ideas and most of the melodic material are already present in the version he wrote at about 15 or 16. This also shows you the immense leap which he took in his own mastery of the keyboard.

You allude in your sleeve-notes to the mania that gripped listeners during Liszt’s famous recital tours. What do you think allowed him to make such an unprecedented psychological impact on audiences?

He understood image-building very well. I think he cut a striking figure and was very much aware of that, cultivating a certain image with the long black coat and so forth: from what we see in pictures he was slim and had long hair, though of course we can only know this second-hand. He also essentially invented the concept of the solo recital, with a programme consisting of nothing but Liszt. Before this, concerts were a mixed affair, often including isolated movements from orchestral works and maybe a handful of operatic arias. Liszt was the first to move to the idea of an entire evening of piano music, and at the time people didn’t even understand what the word “recital” meant – some would ask what exactly was being recited!

The accounts we have of his recitals are interesting; he would come to the piano and play a few pieces, then walk among the audience and speak to them before playing some fantasias on popular operas, which were one of the core parts of his repertoire (he wrote over 70). I imagine that his playing possessed the same kind of electricity which I think Sviatoslav Richter had in his concerts: people who attended have said that there was something that was impossible to put into words, and a tangible feeling of something happening in the hall when Richter was playing. There was even a film made about Liszt in the Soviet Union, with Richter playing Liszt, so there’s that additional connection.

Some writers, yourself included, see Liszt as unifying the “technical” and the “musical” sides of the coin in these études, with virtuosity put at the service of expression rather than just used to strengthen technique. Would you say Liszt was the first composer to do this, or merely the most prominent?

He certainly wasn’t the first in absolute terms - Beethoven did this to perhaps a higher degree in terms of the horizons he opened. But it’s interesting to consider Liszt in the context of other nineteenth-century piano virtuosi like Tausig, Moscheles and Thalberg: their music itself didn’t survive the test of time and they didn't leave any recordings, so after their legends faded not much was left. If you look at pieces by them, they’re extremely brilliant (like Liszt, they’d generally only play their own works and arrangements), but they very rarely seem to have much in terms of actual content beyond the dazzle.

For me, Liszt’s greatest compositional achievement is the B minor Sonata, where he managed to reach a point where the technical element isn’t perceived at all: it’s completely inside the music, serving the greater musical aim. This was certainly the goal in the études as well, but the technical element is very present and tangible, and he doesn’t really ever allow the listener to forget it. In a way it was almost a summary of everything he knew about composition for the keyboard.

The era of the virtuoso star composer-performer has left a legacy of audience-pleasing works, but nothing equivalent exists today. What do you think caused the curtain to come down on this incredible period in musical history?

I’ve often wondered about this myself. If we think of the twentieth century, then probably the greatest composer-performer was Rachmaninov; Prokofiev and Shostakovich were certainly good pianists (as attested in numerous recordings), but not on the same level. Of course, in the opera world the split between composers and performers was always there. Take Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi and so on – none of them performed in their operas, they were just writing them.

Liszt himself was not just a pioneer of self-promotion, but also one of the first people to perform works by other composers, especially when he was facing criticism about being too heavily focused on technique and low on substance. (Mozart, as far as we know, only performed his own compositions, and he wrote them for himself to perform, so it was a kind of self-sustaining cycle). I remember reading about a private concert that Liszt gave in Paris in which he played the Hammerklavier, and which was attended by Berlioz (who among other things was a very prominent music critic in Paris at that time). One of the criticisms that had been levelled at Liszt when he did play other people’s music was that he would embellish it and add his own cadenzas and variations, but Berlioz praised the performance very highly; he said it had the greatest depth and understanding of architecture, and not a note that was superfluous.

To return to the question, though: I wonder if the reason we have fewer composer-performers today is because we simply have fewer have fewer purely classical composers (as the scene has fragmented into so many genres). You think of clusters like those that existed in the late nineteenth century or the early twentieth, where in Russia we had Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and the beginning of Shostakovich, and elsewhere Ravel, Debussy and Fauré, plus Gershwin, Bartók and Schoenberg – all working in the same chronological period. I don’t think we’ve had a cluster like that for the last 30 or 40 years, and it’s not something I can readily explain. There's also been a general shift in that for a long time there was no such thing as a separate performing career or a separate composing career; for the likes of Bach and Mozart, it was all part of the same job. When I was studying at the Music Academy in Israel, by contrast, there was a very clear division: you were either a performer or you were a composer. I don’t know enough to trace the exact source of this split in musical education, but I do think it’s significant.

You’ve previously recorded Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux: how would you say they compare with Liszt’s?

The common link for me is that the piano was their natural element; both composers feel like fish in water when writing for the piano, and both of them push the boundaries of what’s been achieved previously (which in the case of Rachmaninov of course includes where Liszt had gone before him). And both of them have extremely idiomatic ways of writing for the keyboard, as well as very active imaginations. Often there is a story or a picture behind the notes – that's particularly true of Liszt, but even in Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux it’s more of a narrative than just a static image.

Of course the creative worlds in which they’re functioning do belong to different times: Liszt is very much writing out of the spirit of High Romanticism, whereas Rachmaninov is already shifting towards modernity in that there’s a more psychological treatment of his subject-matter and things are more ambiguous and possibly darker.

Your recent discography is dominated by Russian composers, so this all-Liszt album is something of a departure. Are you intending to record more of his works?

This will be my only Liszt album, at least for the next few years; I’ll be continuing the Rachmaninov cycle, both the solo piano works and the concerti, but apart from that my next big project is the complete Beethoven concerti with Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. That will be the next non-Russian recording for me, and after that it will be the complete Ravel works for solo piano.

I do love playing Liszt, and my connection to this repertoire has been growing in recent years, because I’ve been playing a lot at the Liszt Festival in Raiding, Austria where he was born. In fact the initial idea to record the complete études came through a concert that I gave there. We’ll have to see how this album fares…!

Boris Giltburg's recording of Liszt's Transcendental Études was released on Naxos last Friday.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC