October 20, 2019

Liszt’s ‘Harmonies,’ More Intimate Than Ever

Liszt’s ‘Harmonies,’ More Intimate Than Ever

If you haven’t heard of Liszt’s “Poetic and Religious Harmonies,” you’re not alone.

Performances and recordings of the 10-movement cycle, nearly an hour and a half of music for solo piano, are rare. Few performers are willing to take on not only its daunting scale, but also its grueling restraint — a cohesion held together in a delicate tension of wild Romanticism and controlled transparency.

It is, in other words, not your typical Liszt. Tellingly, the most famous section, “Funérailles,” is also the closest “Harmonies” gets to the pyrotechnic showiness that has made Liszt a favorite for encores.

“This is definitely a very private Liszt, one who’s retreated to his inner self,” said the pianist Jenny Lin. “I don’t think you could do this at Carnegie Hall. It would be weird.”

So when Ms. Lin and Adam Tendler share “Harmonies,” Sept. 24-27, they’ll be far from Carnegie, in a much more intimate space: the catacomb of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. It’s the latest installment of The Angel’s Share, a series organized in the cemetery by Andrew Ousley, of the wryly named organization Death of Classical, which also presents The Crypt Sessions, concerts in the crypt at the Church of the Intercession in Manhattan.

Mr. Tendler and Ms. Lin aren’t typically associated with Liszt, or 19th-century music at all. But, to them, that’s part of the fun.

“We’re raised on this stuff,” said Mr. Tendler, who conceived the program. “It’s in our bones. And now we can come at this music with a different kind of lens.”

And it didn’t take long for them to see just how modern “Harmonies” can be. “In a very contemporary way, he’ll do all these shifts in harmony,” Mr. Tendler said. “You see him playing with harmony, like: ‘What will this chord sound like after this chord?’”

But the two pianists were also struck by the uncharacteristic reserve in Liszt’s score. There are long sections with symphonic heft and athletic fingerwork, but many movements are brief, direct transcriptions of sacred music. The cycle is full of breaths and silences, with a fermata on nearly every page: sometimes over consecutive notes, sometimes over entire measures of rest.

“Depending on the acoustic and your mood, it can be done so many different ways,” Ms. Lin said. “I don’t have a set idea for the timing like you would in a piece by Brahms or Schumann.”

Ms. Lin and Mr. Tendler were each asked to introduce one of the sections. Here is what they chose.

This movement may be the most well known of the cycle, but Ms. Lin felt like she didn’t truly hear it until she took it in as part of the entire “Harmonies” set. “By itself, it can just sound athletic, like an encore or end-of-concert piece,” she said. “But it’s so beautiful in this context. It has historical and spiritual importance.”

She first learned “Funérailles” as a student, to demonstrate how quickly and precisely she could play its rapid runs of octaves. “Everyone wants to see who can play the fastest octaves,” Ms. Lin said. “It drives me crazy. They don’t talk about the intensity, and how he builds these very deep and dramatic themes.”

The focus should be on the first pages, which Ms. Lin said “set the tone for the rest of the piece.” That’s why she admires Sviatoslav Richter and Arcadi Volodos; in their recordings, “it’s like the music boils, like something is cooking.”

“That’s what I hope to achieve, this buildup,” she added. “Then, at the end, it’s shocking: After all that sound, you have these three pianissimo chords. It’s like these little heartbeats — in a piece about death, life wins.”

This was the first section of “Harmonies” that Mr. Tendler was able to play as a young pianist. “It was sort of sight-readable,” he recalled. “There was something so transparent about it, I was captivated. But even then I could see how it’s tricky.”

“Everything seems so perfectly placed,” he added. “It can be a little bit of a tongue-twister, and I could never quite do it perfectly.”

“Pater Noster” is a two-page choral transcription, with the prayer’s text over the melody as a kind of unspoken reminder, which Mr. Tendler saw as “something intimate — how Liszt is communicating with the player that way.”

Unlike many of Liszt’s other transcriptions, it never takes off into a fantasia, nor does it seem reimagined for the piano. “When it does start to sound like a piano piece, it doesn’t develop,” Mr. Tendler said. “His restraint here is stunning. He could do 10 more pages — a big thing, a glissando. He just doesn’t. Even as a kid, I found that fascinating.”

Decades before Satie, Mr. Tendler added, Liszt’s audaciously pared-down style here reminds him of that later composer. “There’s something so radical about that,” he said. “That sort of spreads to me for the whole piece. I think, What else is radical here? And I start to hear it everywhere.”

Liszt: Poetic and Religious Harmonies

Sept. 24-27 at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn; deathofclassical.com.

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