Ian Lindsey might be the greatest unknown pianist in Boston. I have been chasing down his outside-of- Boston concerts for 10 years, and each time I’ve heard him, I have not understood why he has chosen to keep such a low profile. His faculty recital at Rivers School Conservatory in Weston on Saturday night (Feb. 11) featured a program I had never before seen live: the wildly virtuosic last nine of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies.
Many pianists show off their chops by playing one or two of the 19 rhapsodies; one at a time can wear out a normally gifted mortal. But Lindsey pulled off the feat of not just playing each of the nine technically magnificently, but with beautiful musicianship. It was a twice-in-lifetime experience; last April I heard him play the first 10, just as magisterially.
Liszt was a touring virtuoso when, in 1840 and 1846, he traveled through Hungary and heard the gypsy bands he recalled from his youth. He loved their melodies and notated many of them in hopes of preserving them. His Magyar rapszódiák (Hungarian Rhapsodies, 1839-47) were, unlike the Hungarian Melodies written at the same time, far more difficult, and were the precursors to the better-known Hungarian Rhapsodies, numbers 3-15.
Liszt, alas, was unaware that this national style of folk music came from an inauthentic source, the Roma people, a.k.a. “Gypsies.” What he collected, according to Lindsey’s excellent program notes, was “in reality the stylization and adaptation of music written by Hungarian individuals from more recent times who had little knowledge of more ancient folk traditions.” Two forms that show up in the Hungarian Rhapsodies are the Csárdás, a folk dance derived for an old term for “tavern,” and the Verbunkos, an army-recruiting dance in duple meter known for its syncopated rhythm. Lindsey notes that Csárdás, far simpler than Verbunkos, were created in the 1840s by Hungarian composers and mean “country inn” because of their customary use in a more recreational way for rustic entertainment.
The first two Hungarian Rhapsodies were started in 1846; Nos. 3 through 15, taken from earlier sources, were written in 1852, and feature thematic material collected largely by Liszt. In the last four, a sea change occurs, especially tonally. To hear the last nine, ending with the last four, is an extraordinary musical odyssey, especially in the hands of one who plays them with as much understanding, verve, and style as Ian Lindsey — to say nothing of downright superhuman chops.
Lindsey wrote helpful notes about each of the nine rhapsodies, but nothing can prepare a listener for the cumulative building of one astonishing performance after another. No one in the small but appreciative audience was more awed than the several excellent pianists (and harpist) in attendance. It’s like a musical marathon, but one done with such grace and poise — ne’er a note missed — that it seems almost a natural and ideal programming event. Almost!
Taking notes at such an exciting concert was tough; one didn’t want to take one’s eyes off of the fingers (and pedaling) for an instant. But here are some of the technical hurdles Liszt must have loved to toss off himself (in his virtuoso days, before quitting performing entirely to compose): the left hand jumping all over the keyboard, octaves and double octaves scurrying about at a little less than the speed of light, thematic transformation so well known in Liszt’s music (recall the Sonata in B minor), stunning right-hand tremolos and trills, the deft use of the entire keyboard, chromaticism, mercurial mood and musical changes. Lindsey handled every challenge with aplomb and brilliant musicianship. This was a concert the audience and I will long remember.