Liszt Bicentennial 2011: Au bord d’une source; Mephisto Waltz No 1; Sonetto di Patrarca; Les jeux d’eau à la villa d’Este; Hungarian Rhapsody No 14; Norma – réminiscences; Wolfram’s song to the Evening Star from Tannhäuser; Transcription of the Overture to Tannhäuser
Endre Hegedűs – piano. Sponsored by the Hungarian Embassy in Canberra and the Honorary Consul-General in Wellington, to mark the current Hungarian Presidency of the European Union.
St Andrew’s on The Terrace
Friday 1 April, 7pm
The tour of New Zealand by this established Hungarian pianist had been organized some time before the February earthquake in Christchurch, but when the pianist heard about its devastation, he generously decided to give all proceeds from his five New Zealand concerts to help the victims.
I had not heard of Hegedűs, but that is no reason to imagine that he has little to offer.
I did not respond to all his playing but there was more than enough that I found interesting, perceptive and moving, and almost all showing arresting bravura and accuracy. In fact, though not among the top twenty perhaps, his international reputation is clearly thoroughly established.
The recital began with Au bord d’une source, from the First year – Switzerland – of the Years of Pilgrimage, uttered with splashy runs in scintillating tempi that shifted and slackened poetically towards the ends of phrases; the impression was of great clarity. Liszt is almost the last composer about whom it is safe or sensible to attempt to lay down standards or to claim to have a definitive interpretation in one’s head, and this piece introduced me to a lot that was individual and which only rarely sounded routine rather than the result of an individual conception.
The first Mephisto Waltz is one of Liszt’s most remarkable pieces: feverish, demonic, erotic and in the hands of a master, very exciting; and that was how this performance emerged. The three Petrarch sonnets are drawn from songs which are among Liszt’s loveliest and which are coming to be heard as important in the canon of romantic lieder, or in this case, quite closely related to the French art-song or mélodie. The piano version is gloriously rhapsodic and I’m sure there are those who seriously doubt that all the heated romantic passion is good for one’s moral health. So far I have maintained good health through a life-time of exposure to such pestilences. I enjoyed this performance immensely.
The fountains at the Villa d’Este which I recall seeing before being acquainted with Liszt’s guide-book entry, are beautifully portrayed in this piece from the Third year, Italy, of Years of Pilgrimage. It is possible to hear this as a succession of impressionistic scales and decorated arpeggios that evades the need for conventional musical substance; but bear in mind that the essence of bel canto, of which Norma is a great example, is its use of such ornamentation to express emotion. It makes its impact in much the same way as did the confessed French impressionists fifty years later. Again, water, whether flowing, churning, jetted or as storm-tossed seas, are among the most often used and evocative inspirations of the romantic imagination in all the arts, and Hegedüs was not wrong in his generous application of effects that created vivid visual impressions, working openly on the emotions.
The first half ended with the flamboyant 14th Hungarian Rhapsody. It has other manifestations, as Hungarian Rhapsody No 1 for orchestra (which, coincidentally, you’d have heard the next morning, about 9am Saturday, on RNZ Concert), and a later version for piano duet (also No 1 in that series) and for piano and orchestra, called the Hungarian Fantasia).
Hegedűs worked through its ever-changing moods, pushing them often to their limits, starting with quite formidable weight on the opening chords, then investing the big first theme with a quite individual rhythm, and taking quite open delight in what have come to be the despised ‘gypsy’ tunes as distinct from the ‘true Hungarian’ melodies that Bartok sought out and recorded later. The performance gathered itself up with increasing flamboyance and reckless disregard for the hard acoustic of the church and the survival of the piano; so that it increased in speed and loudness in a way that may well have driven off some who could hear it only as brazen exhibitionism.
The second half was devoted to transcriptions and reminiscences from opera. The first rode luxuriantly on the long, and richly lyrical lines of Bellini’s tunes in Norma. Its first impact was to draw attention to Bellini’s genius in that sphere; Liszt’s generosity of spirit towards other composers and musicians was constant throughout his life. While his transcriptions of operas and symphonic works were indeed vehicles for his own playing, they were just as much to honour and to popularize the operas themselves. Not that Norma needed any promotion in the early 1840s after its enormous success on the stage in 1831. The Norma reminiscences nevertheless, run the risk of smothering the rich melodies with needless embellishment and becoming something rather different.
In seeking background about Hegedűs, I came across an entry in Wikipedia that revealed his name among those whose recordings had been misappropriated in the Joyce Hatto scam a few years ago and which was exposed shortly after her death in 2006. Many of the alleged Hatto recordings appear in a fascinating list together with the apparent sources of each recorded performance. Several of Hegedűs’s are there, including opera transcriptions. Many of the Hatto forgeries were in fact performances by distinguished pianists like Ashkenazy, Hamelin, Bronfman, Marshev, Collard, Ingrid Haebler …. Hegedűs was in good company.
I have not found reviews of the ‘Hatto’ recordings traced to Hegedűs, but it would be interesting to see how critics heard them. The Norma reminiscences are not in the list.
There followed the transcriptions of Wolfram’s aria ‘O du mein lieber Abendstern’ and the overture from Tannhäuser. The Evening Star was poetically played with quiet chords though Liszt found it hard to bring it to a restrained conclusion. The overture soon succumbed to the temptation to grandiloquence and flamboyant rhetoric, somewhat unrelenting, and I had to confess to being rather overwhelmed by playing that became simply too reckless and loud, though never careless. It may have worked in a large auditorium well upholstered with a couple of thousand people; hardly in this space.
Hegedűs introduced each piece in words that were often difficult to catch but there was enough to reveal an engaging personality with a nice sense of humour; a pervasive love of his instrument and of Liszt’s music.
In all, Hegedűs’s brought to Liszt’s music an authentic romantic spirit that was poetic, as well as capable of grandeur and excess; and the chance to hear some of the rarely played opera transcriptions was a real bonus.