Liszt: The Late Years (5 Ungarische volkslieder, Via Crucis and Other Piano Works)


  • Artist(s): Giancarlo Simonacci
  • Composer(s): Franz Liszt
  • EAN Code: 7.46160913704
  • Edition: Da Vinci Classics
  • Format: 1 Cd
  • Genre: Instrumental
  • Instrumentation: Piano
  • Period: Romantic
  • Publication year: 2022
SKU: C00535 Category:

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Ascetic and prophetic, the Liszt of his last years is also pervaded by a fervent mysticism.
Abbé Liszt, by now far from the acrobatic virtuosity which had astonished the audiences throughout Europe, now takes refuge within a deep introspection of his own soul.
Intimate, but also dramatic works are created; certainly, tending towards the future. They constitute an indispensable bridge for the rising of the musical twentieth century.
The Via Crucis, the summit of Liszt’s religious aspiration, takes several performing perspectives as the composer realizes several versions.
The first of them is for solos, choir and organ (or harmonium, or piano, also four-hands).
Later, Liszt conceives a version where the only protagonist is the piano.
Without detracting from the great intensity of the version with solos and choir supported by the organ/harmonium or by the piano, I believe that the Via Crucis for solo piano, with its extraordinary instrumental essentiality, tending towards the quest for an almost metaphysical piano timbre, reaches summits of absolute expressive purity.

Giancarlo Simonacci © 2021

Rather than a piece-by-piece listening guide, these short notes aim at being a guide for entering the world of Liszt. Listening to the works, one by one, will illustrate better than any explanatory note the sense of this music. However, in order to enter this world, one needs some premises in terms of a listening method, and of an introduction to the musical parameters, rather than of descriptive illustration of the pieces. Those who can read a musical score will find all pieces of this album freely on the website IMSLP. By following them during the listening process, the harmonic and contrapuntal processes of Liszt’s writing will be clarified.
Liszt’s musical education was immediately linked to the Beethovenian experience. At the young age of eleven, he wrote a Variation on the theme of Diabelli’s waltz. Along with the variation written by Schubert, and with the 33 visionary variations by Beethoven, it is one of the most daring and innovative.
The B-minor Sonata, written between 1852 and 1853 and published the following year, is probably the most awe-inspiring example of this, being built on the initial rhythmical gesture and on a single chord (a dissonant one, ça va sans dire). Actually, this need, or rather this necessity to reduce the starting cell to the minimum is manifested already in Liszt’s youthful works; they are simply the consequence of the lesson he learnt from Beethoven. Indeed, his piano teacher was Czerny, in turn a pupil of Beethoven.
Liszt would be the first pianist who could propose in his recitals some all-Beethoven soirees; he was the first performer, in a public concert, of Sonata op. 106. This would leave the mark on him as an unsurpassed model of Sonata building, or rather of the building of any kind of musical works. The echoes of its Scherzo, Adagio, and Fugue, in Liszt’s oeuvre (not only for the piano) are countless.
Let us go back, however, to the pieces recorded on this CD. They all belong in the late period of Liszt’s life. The earliest are the Five Hungarian Folksongs, written in 1873. They are surprising due to Liszt’s adhesion to the gipsy melodic style: the reference scales are modal, rather than tonal. However, one should be careful. The habit to study scales, for all those approaching the actual practice of music, may become misleading in order to grasp its nature. In the folk tradition, but also in the “cultivated” one, the scale in its linear succession is a mere theoretical construct. In reality, musicians or singers have melodic models in mind; their harmonic relationships are determined by the succession of this or that interval. In tonal harmony, perception is often determined by the chord’s construction, by the intervallic relations within the chord. For example, the difference between C major and C minor is not perceived as a difference between two scale models, but rather thanks to the fact that a chord built on the root C is major if a natural E is superimposed over the C, it is minor if a flat E is found. Schubert plays most of his harmonic surprises on this exchange. And Schubert was a composer who, rightly, enthused Liszt.
Still, folk singing does not know of harmonic progressions; it knows melodies varying in their harmonic colour. The scale is the construction derived by music theorists from the conformation of these melodies. Musicians, however, have melodies in mind rather than scales. If you have a minimal familiarity with the piano, you can try it yourself. For example, on the C-F tetrachord one can change the melody’s colour by turning the E into an E-flat or the D into D-flat, together or one by one: C-E-D-F-E-D-C, C-E flat-D-F-E-flat-C, C-E-D flat F-E-D flat-C, C-E flat-D flat-F-E flat-C. This system had been intuited already by Beethoven, for example, when he adopted the Gregorian modes in the Missa Solemnis. Now, try to harmonically analyze the piano’s cadenza in the Larghetto of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto. In what key is it written?
Let us go back to Liszt. In a beautiful youthful work, Vallée d’Obermann, in the First Book of Années de pèlerinage, the left hand proposes a descending scale in the key of G major; from G it goes down to A, ascends back to C and resolves on B. The right hand harmonizes this passage with seventh-chords (dissonant!); in the second bar, they introduce an A sharp, as the leading note of B. Is this B minor? Not at all. The right hand then reaffirms a clear E minor. In the following bars the harmonization gets more complicated. But by now it is clear that Liszt imagined this piece as an evolution of the descending scale (and of its ascending inversions), harmonized in different forms by and by. Well, in the Via Crucis, more than thirty years (forty if one considers the first sketches) after Années de pèlerinage, he does not do otherwise. Listen to the IV, V, VIII and X station. In the latter, there appears a chromatic tune seemingly excerpted from the Dante-Symphonie, from the theme portraying Francesca da Rimini. But now we are in the last years. Via Crucis is from 1878-9, Nuage gris from 1881, En rêve from 1885, like the Trauervorspiel und Trauermarsch, the two Lugubre gondola from 1882. Liszt does not actually break the boundaries of tonality; rather, he follows the relationships suggested by the initial cell, by the interval generating the tune, to which the rhythmical stimulus is associated. Their combination is explosive. Seemingly, the chords’ succession appears illogical and surprising, the melody ungraspable, fleeting. However, try and free your mind from the squareness of the tunes you are used to listen to; free yourself from the harmonic listening habits (even those relating to a rock song). Follow the elaboration led by Liszt, starting from little, almost nothing – an interval, a rhythm – and you will discover in this music a surprising capability for a musical invention, facing the risk of diving into the void. In fact there is no void: there is only the risk to be faithful to one’s premises. These are not those of a comfortable journey into the well-known, but rather the challenge to see where an unknown path may lead, even if it starts from a known point. And this may trouble those expecting the re-proposition of a known model of musical itinerary – a comfortable one, is it not? An itinerary repeating I, V, I – tonic, dominant, tonic: this itinerary was too narrow already for Beethoven. Not by chance, in his first Piano Concerto he rehearsed it forcefully at the beginning in order to be able to immediately avoid or contrast it. Liszt was born here, in this Beethoven who draws the lines in order to overcome them, or takes them out in order to disorient.
Many wish to see and to hear, in this late Liszt, the anticipation of Schoenberg. Doubtlessly, Liszt suggested to Schoenberg the idea of a music generated by a succession of intervals, by a melody turning itself into a diagram of other melodies. Who knows, perhaps the idea of the series may have been born out of the analysis of the B-minor Sonata, obsessively built on a single succession of intervals. However, their intentions do not coincide: Schoenberg was searching for a rule, Liszt wanted to write a music whose rules come out from the premises, but freely, without a predetermined scheme. Indeed, surprisingly, Boulez or the last Stockhausen may be closer to him.
However, one should not forget that Liszt was the most performed composer (particularly in his symphonic output) in Europe and America between nineteenth and twentieth century. Somehow, Mahler started from him, along with Schubert and Bruckner, and from the Jewish tradition, that has never been really studied in the importance it has in his music (except perhaps by some performers, such as Walter or Bernstein). Still, a lesson must be learnt from this music. The avantgardes’ frenzy seems to be contrasted by a no less raging frenzy by the anti-avantgarde. Extremist positions frequently coincide, especially in their missing the point. Britten, Strauss or Poulenc seemed to be anachronistic in the eyes of the avantgarde – to say nothing of the embarrassing Šostakovič, the musician of a popular republic refusing modernity. But here lies the equivocation. What is modernity? A style, a language, a system? Poor Werner Henze, who was moderner than his critics who considered him as a deserter. Lo, Liszt teaches us this: modernity is the freedom to start once more and to develop with consistency what tradition left us, but neither in the direction wished for by traditionalists, nor in that of their enemies. Liszt fits uneasily both within the traditional rules and within their reversal: tradition is not a model, but a method. And method never repeats what has been said already, but rather teach us to say something new. Those repeating the avantgarde’s modules are not innovative; neither are those contrasting them in order to propose a restauration of the already said. The new consists of glimpsing in tradition the evolution leading to new ways. This is what Liszt teaches us. We have much to learn from him.
Dino Villatico © 2021


Giancarlo Simonacci, pianist and composer, was born in Rome, where he studied music at the Conservatorio “Santa Cecilia”. He then took advanced courses in composition with Aldo Clementi and piano in piano with Carlo Zecchi at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. He is active as a piano soloist and plays regularly in a piano duo with Gabriella Morelli, also performing frequently with singers and other instrumentalists.
As a composes and performer he takes part in the foremost international festivals and concert series. His compositions have been published by BMG Ricordi, Edipan, Rugginenti and Accord for Music, and he also recorded for RAI (the official Italian television and radio network), Discoteca di Stato Italiana, Radio Vaticana and ORF (Austria). Silence Records produced a CD, interpreted by Francesco Negro, dedicated to his piano works. He has made recordings for CRI, Edipan, Fonotipia, RCA, Domanimusica, Mr Classics, Irtem, AFM, Atopos and Twilightmusic.
Particularly noteworthy are his recordings of the music of John Cage, for Brilliant Classics, which were well received by the press both in Italy (Messaggero, La Repubblica, La Gazzetta di Parma, La Stampa, Musica, Suonare News, Amadeus, Classic Voice etc.) and abroad (ABC, Magazine Klassics, Piano, Le Monde de la Musique, Diapason, Scherzo, BBC Music Magazine, Los Angeles Times etc.). For Brilliant Classics he has recorded the complete piano works of Ildebrando Pizzetti and complete works for cello and piano of Morton Feldman with his son Marco and a CD with works of Giulio Ricordi for 4 hands piano (duo G. Morelli – G. Simonacci).
For Da Vinci Classics he has recorded the piano works of Stefano Golinelli.
For over 40 years Giancarlo has taught piano at the Sassari, Frosinone and Rome conservatories. He has also given numerous masterclasses, seminars and conferences in Italy, Spain and Austria.


Franz Liszt: (b Raiding, (Doborján), 22 Oct 1811; d Bayreuth, 31 July 1886). Hungarian composer, pianist and teacher. He was one of the leaders of the Romantic movement in music. In his compositions he developed new methods, both imaginative and technical, which left their mark upon his forward-looking contemporaries and anticipated some 20th-century ideas and procedures; he also evolved the method of ‘transformation of themes’ as part of his revolution in form, made radical experiments in harmony and invented the symphonic poem for orchestra. As the greatest piano virtuoso of his time, he used his sensational technique and captivating concert personality not only for personal effect but to spread, through his transcriptions, knowledge of other composers’ music. As a conductor and teacher, especially at Weimar, he made himself the most influential figure of the New German School dedicated to progress in music. His unremitting championship of Wagner and Berlioz helped these composers achieve a wider European fame. Equally important was his unrivalled commitment to preserving and promoting the best of the past, including Bach, Handel, Schubert, Weber and above all Beethoven; his performances of such works as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Hammerklavier Sonata created new audiences for music hitherto regarded as incomprehensible. The seeming contradictions in his personal life – a strong religious impulse mingled with a love of worldly sensation – were resolved by him with difficulty. Yet the vast amount of new biographical information makes the unthinking view of him as ‘half gypsy, half priest’ impossible to sustain. He contained in his character more of the ideals and aspirations of the 19th century than any other major musician.

Profile from The New Grove dictionary of Music and Musicians

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