Born of German ancestry in Hungary in 1811, Franz Liszt was first known as the most brilliant pianist of his age, with an astounding technique and a flair for the dramatic that made him, in modern terms, a "rock star," complete with fawning, adoring women as his fan base. Between 1839 and 1847, his tours of Europe made him so famous that the era is known for its "Lisztomania."
This condition, which seems to have burst forth when he played in Berlin at the end of 1841, was marked by extreme reactions by followers who were transported, it is said, into a mystical ecstasy-like state when the pianist performed. Fans clamored for his personal effects, his hair, cigar butts, coffee grounds and broken piano strings and they wore his portrait to performances. How much of the reporting of Liszt fever was based on psychology, politics or other lenses through which to view the phenomenon has been oft-debated, but there is no question that the sheer brilliance of his playing and his dramatic and romantic style and persona were fundamental to the condition.
In any case, after 1847, Liszt ceased most public performing and turned his attention to developing himself as a composer. He spent most of the next fourteen years at Weimar where he was a Kapellmeister, composed his most memorable works, taught students and wrote about upcoming composers like Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner, who later married Liszt's daughter, Cosima.
In the late 1850s, Liszt joined a Franciscan order and, after being denied marriage to his long-time consort and losing two children to early deaths, he entered a monastery in 1863 and received minor orders, becoming known as an abbe. He occasionally composed, including a Hungarian coronation for Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I in 1866 and traveled frequently to give courses on the piano through the 1870s. After ill health beset him following a fall in 1881, he died in 1886 from pneumonia at Bayreuth, Germany, where Wagner and Liszt's daughter Cosima conducted their annual music festival to promote Wagner's works.
This 1990 disc by Russian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja showcases some of Liszt's great piano works, including the 33-minute Piano Sonata in B Minor, which, though in one continuous movement, has distinctive sections in which dramatic, florid and complex elements are interspersed with introspective and quiet passages with gorgeous melodic and thematic statements. This sonata is often considered one of the composer's great, if highly controversial, works and was composed in 1852-53 and published in 1854, dedicated to the great Robert Schumann, who had just been committed to an asylum where he spent the remainder of his life.
The 17-minute closer, the Dante Sonata, is a technically demanding piece, which had its origins in 1837 after Liszt's spent considerable time in Switzerland and Italy, was revised in 1849 and then classified in the late 1850s with other pieces in the "Years of Pilgrimage" series that emanated from that 1835 to 1839 era. Liszt, who was not highly educated, became a devoted admirer of literature and composed many programmatic works and symphonic poems based on literary themes. Again, there are heavier, dramatic sections contrasted with gentle, reflective melodic passages and this is also one of the composer's most famous pieces.
In between are two of the three Petrarch Sonnets, composed in 1838 in Italy, published in 1846 and then included in the 1858 classification of the "Years of Pilgrimage" collection mentioned above. The first of these pieces, Sonnet 104, is more intense as a lover's longing lament , while Sonnet 123 has a more lyrical and languid character that reflects the poem's ecstatic content.
Leonskaja performs these pieces with the strength and power when required and then the necessary grace, refinement, and light touch when called for. Her work on the demanding Dante Sonata is particularly spectacular. Now 67 and a resident of Vienna since leaving the Soviet Union in 1978, Leonskaja is still active in recording, performing and instruction. Incidentally, there is a fantastic performance by her of Schubert's sublime E-flat Impromptu on a YouTube link in this interview (click here) that is well worth seeing.
Franz Liszt: Piano Sonata in B Minor and Dante Sonata (Teldec, 1990)
1. Piano Sonata in B Minor 32:53
2. Petrarch Sonnet Number 104 6:50
3. Petrarch Sonnet Number 123 8:06
4. Dante Sonata 16:51