Roscoe celebrates Liszt’s 200th birthday in Nelson

Adam Chamber Music Festival. Martin Roscoe (piano)

Liszt: Ballade No 2 in B minor, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude, Schlaflos, Frage und Antwort, La lugubre Gondola, Tarantella (Venezia e Napoli), Sonata in B minor; encore – Transcription of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.

Nelson School of Music. Tuesday 8 February 7.30pm

This was a recital, I had thought, that would have been considered one of the real highlights of the festival and would accordingly have been sold out. It was not; perhaps three-quarters full. It may have been the lingering notion that Liszt’s extraordinary pianism excludes the possibility of producing good music, or that Roscoe’s name was not sufficiently exciting to bring people out regardless of the music.

Roscoe spoke before most of the pieces making clear his own view of Liszt’s importance in the history of music and the greatness of much of his music. For me the only problem was the combined effect of a piano with a somewhat unruly bass resonance, encouraged by the very responsive acoustic of the auditorium, and further exploited by Roscoe’s somewhat formidable treatment of passages above mezzo-forte.

The second Ballade used to be fairly familar when I was young, but it’s one of the many pieces that’s been dismissed by critics who focus on the orthodox forms and structures that they can see in the printed score, not daring to trust a response to the simple impact of the performed music. Roscoe brought its drama vividly to life, while also allowing the quiet, reflective passages to suggest a metaphysical state. Though the double octaves were a bit too much, the music’s subsidence to a poetic ending forgave everything. The Bénédiction is one of the many remarkable pieces in the collection, Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, and while there are a few passages that don’t wear well, seeming overblown, and Roscoe’s left hand left the accompanying figures rather mechanical, the totality remains a thing of romantic splendour.

Then came two of Liszt’s late piano pieces: Schlaflos, and La lugubre Gondola. Again, the opening of Schlaflos was too loud, far louder than was needed to wake the corpse being carried along the Grand Canal in the next piece. The two performances were valuable in reminding the doubters that Liszt was a subtle, inward creative spirit, particularly in his last years; they were arresting. To return to the central Liszt, Roscoe then played the Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli, a supplement to the Second Year of the Années de Pèlerinage, Book II. One of his most flamboyant pieces, Roscoe played it as fast as possible.

All this was a prelude to the Sonata in B minor. Roscoe does not perhaps have the gift of thoroughly disguising the work and effort that lies behind a performance of a piece of this kind; he does not make it look easy. Nevertheless, along with the expected quota of blurred moments, it was an impressive performance that seemed driven by a towering sense of purpose and an awareness from the first suggestive notes of the momentous spiritual journey that lay ahead. Such a performance should have allowed the pianist to close the fall-board which remained on the long stick.

An encore after such a challenging journey was hardly to be expected So it was a surprise when, as an encore, he took on the transcription of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde with undiminished romantic power.

Roscoe had put together, in a very short space, a representative selection of Liszt’s huge output of piano music, from the flamboyant early pieces to the spare spiritual pieces of his last years.

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