The inaugural London Piano Festival, created and directed by pianists Charles Owen and Katya Apishevka, got off to an impressive start with its opening event – a talk by Alfred Brendel on Liszt and the B minor Piano Sonata, followed by a performance of the sonata by Dénes Várjon.

Liszt’s sonata is regarded by many as his ultimate masterpiece and it ranks alongside other “greats” in the pantheon of piano repertoire. This was not always the case, however, and in the 19th century it was met with extreme reactions, from admiration to suspicion and envy. The critic Eduard Hanslick declared “Anyone who has heard this and finds it beautiful is beyond help”, while Wagner heaped praised upon it (perhaps unsurprisingly). Alfred Brendel has called it “the most original, powerful and intelligent sonata composed after Beethoven and Schubert”.

Denés Varjon © Balazs Borocz
Denés Varjon
© Balazs Borocz

There are many perceptions and misconceptions surrounding Liszt, which have coloured views of the man and his music. Views which I too held, until I began to explore his music and his life in more detail. In his pre-performance talk, Brendel touched on these misconceptions: that until fairly recently, Liszt has been little appreciated, regarded by many as a “showman” whose virtuosity was a negative attribute. A poseur and a charlatan, superficial and bombastic whose music contains unstable melodic invention, a tendency to “say things too often”, and which is grandiose, grandiloquent, vulgar and over-abundant. With these views in mind, Brendel observed that few players can really get to the core of Liszt’s music.

Wagner called him “the most musical of all musicians”, and for the pianist Liszt mobilizes all facets of the instrument, rendering it a tool subordinate to the music. His Etudes, for example, represent the height of musical sophistication and technical expertise, and his musical outlook in general was noble, transcendental, sacred, orchestral and metaphysical. His late music in particular displays extreme contrasts, is arbitrary and fragmentary, and atonal. It anticipates Schoenberg, Messiaen and beyond, effectively ushering in the 20th century.

The B minor piano sonata, however, is the big exception. It is not a bravura nor poetic piece. In its structure it references both the classical sonata form as conceived by Haydn and Mozart and continued by Beethoven and Schubert, and the looser term “sonata”, meaning an instrumental work in four movements (exposition, development, recapitulation and coda). In the Sonata, Liszt combines all these meanings into a single movement – and by doing so he also continues what Schubert explored in his Wanderer Fantasy and late piano sonatas, where the sections of the work are linked via distinctive themes or motifs, which Brendel highlighted on the piano during his talk. In this respect, Brendel believes the work belongs to “German music” and looks back to Beethoven and Schubert in its conception.

Following Brendel's engaging talk came a live performance of the Sonata by Hungarian pianist Dénes Varjon. Armed with so much information about Liszt and the structure of the sonata, this was an enlightening performance, particularly for the Liszt ingénue. The pianist’s rather flamboyant gestures went some way to contradicting Brendel’s preceding words; nonetheless this was a performance of great drama, variety of musical colour and subtle voicing, particularly in the quiet sections where Varjon’s delicacy of touch really came to the fore. There was clear intent, purpose and form, and the work flowed intelligently. It felt like one body of music, and yet it was possible to clearly discern the movements and individual themes. In short, it made sense – and while I do not think I will ever truly like this Sonata, this was a fine performance, marking a splendid and insightful opening to the London Piano Festival.

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