Monday, July 14, 2014

Liszt - Piano Concerto No. 2 In A Major

Franz Liszt's 2nd Piano Concerto was published in 1863, but sketches for the work went back as far as 1839 when he was still touring Europe as a piano virtuoso.  During the intervening years between the initial ideas for the concerto and the final version, Liszt had retired from the concert platform and accepted the  directorship of music at the Wiemar court where he gained experience not only as a composer, but as an orchestral conductor.

A comparison between the 1st Piano Concerto In E-flat Major  and the 2nd Concerto Piano Concerto In A Major show how Liszt had changed as a composer and an artist. While the solo part for the 1st Piano Concerto is overtly virtuosic, the difficulties in the solo part of the 2nd Concerto are not as obvious. While both concertos are played without a break, the first nonetheless falls into four distinct sections, while the seams are not quite so obvious in the 2nd concerto. Liszt attempted to integrate piano and orchestra even more in the 2nd than the 1st concerto, and used the Concerto Symphonique compositions of Henry Litolff as models.  Liszt was well acquainted with Litolff's works for piano and orchestra, and also knew Litolff personally. Liszt dedicated the 1st Piano Concerto to Litolff, and wrote Concerto Symphonique on the manuscript of the 2nd Piano Concerto.

The late music critic Michael Steinberg summed up the difference between the 1st and 2nd piano concertos when he wrote :
The Concerto No. 1 is an octaves-and-glitter piece with small poetic ambition. The Concerto No. 2 is another matter. Liszt is sparing with devices guaranteed to bring down the house...even more important is the pervasiveness of a manner, a tone, that asks listeners for concentrated attention and delicacy of response. An expert keyboard athlete can make a go of the First Concerto. The Second Concerto is for poets...
The 2nd Piano Concerto is in one continuous movement that contains six sections:

I. Adagio sostenuto assai - The primary theme of the entire work is heard directly from the woodwinds in a quiet progression of chords. After the clarinet plays the theme, the piano accompanies the strings in presenting the theme. Liszt immediately begins to embellish and transform the theme in the solo part, as other secondary themes appear, sometimes in the piano, sometimes in the orchestra. The piano makes a run to the depths of the piano's range in a short solo that leads to another variant of the main theme. The give and take between piano and orchestra continues and leads directly to the next section.

II. Allegro agitato assai - A scherzo that has Liszt going far away from the home key of A major. A variant of the main theme leads to the next section.

III. Allegro moderato -  The main theme is taken up by the cello with piano accompaniment in this lyrical section. The piano trades off with the cello woodwinds in music that sings in a mellow mood.

IV. Allegro deciso - The transformation of the main theme continues, and other secondary themes reappear, also in different guises. A short transition leads the way to the next section

V. Marziale un poco meno allegro -  The main theme is transformed into a march. The strongly rhythmic variant serves to bring the music back to the home key of A major. After the march the transformations continue and lead to the final section.

VI. Allegro animato - A coda to the concerto, the piano and orchestra continue their partnership as the music changes in mood and character. Glissandos in the solo part punctuate the unbuttoned joy of the final comments on the main theme and a few secondary ones. The orchestra and soloist play passages that lead to the final chords.

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