Filipina pianist Cecile Licad burst onto the international scene with her Leventritt Piano Competition Gold Medal in 1981. Somewhat of a stranger to Boston audiences, she has had an important career as soloist, chamber musician and recitalist. Scott Nickrenz, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s music director, scored a programming coup by inviting Licad to the inaugural season at the new Calderwood Hall where, on February 19th, she performed two works: Liszt’s Sonata in B minor and Chopin’s Twelve Etudes, op. 25.
With no introductory piece to warm up her audience, and after but a short, dramatic pause of poetic contemplation, Licad got right to work with one of the major pieces of the piano literature. Her impassive face was no mirror to her soul, though her silent mouthing of cross-rhythms and attacks certainly revealed her deep involvement.
Great performances of Liszt’s B minor Sonata in part rely on powerful tones in climactic moments to produce an ominousness which ought to frighten and shock. But those qualities were lacking, through no fault of Licad. Indeed her keyboard weight and musculature were sufficient to cause some of the bass strings of the Calderwood Hall Steinway to strike one another. But because the piano was lidless, the sonorities did not reach satisfyingly visceral levels for this reviewer seated on the auditorium’s floor. Perhaps the balcony gods may have found the sound more immersive. Licad effectively compensated for the hall’s dryness with generous use of the damper pedal, though without indulging so extravagantly as to blur the harmonies.
From mf on down, her tone evinced a beauty and evenness reminiscent of the grand manner virtuosi such as Shura Cherkassky as well as Licad’s own teacher, Mieczyslaw Horszowski (Her playing did not so clearly evoke her other two Curtis teachers, Rudolf Serkin and Seymour Lipkin.) She displayed many techniques of a more belle époque such as prestissimo-pianissimo runs referred to as “string(s) of pearls.” Her rhythmic freedom was considerable, but controlled. The longer line was never broken.
She began the fugal section of the Liszt Sonata faster than I have ever before heard in a performance — then she accelerated! Overall I would characterize the interpretation as a Schubertian take — reminiscent of the Wanderer Fantasy, one of the work’s clear influences. Yet her performance was also very much her own.
Licad came back from intermission with Chopin’s Twelve Etudes, op. 25. Demonstrating absolute security, she nailed all of the technical challenges, freeing herself to reveal and contrast the moods and characteristics of the studies as if they were tone paintings. My notes include words such as “soulful,” “scary,” “galloping,” “consolation,” “a dotted trot,” “impossibly perfect double chromatic scales,” “pellucid,” etc. Her execution was transcendental, as Liszt would have called it — also evocative of Godowsky — though without Godowsky’s astonishing and at times vulgar additions and embellishments.
For her encore Licad charmed and danced her way through Pasquinade, op. 59 of Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829 – 1869), sending us bounding out with broad smiles.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.
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The following appendix would have been included in the intended review of Mark DeVoto had he not begged off because of illness.
Of the great triumvirate of composers for the big mid-century Romantic piano — Chopin (1810-1849), Schumann (1810-1856), and Liszt (1811-1886) — Liszt was the greatest pianist, the longest-lived, and the most prolific, the most dazzling, the most admired. There was a lot of mutual admiration, too; Chopin dedicated his first set of Etudes, op. 10, to Liszt, and his second Ballade, op. 38, to Schumann; Schumann dedicated his Kreisleriana, op. 16, to Chopin, and his Phantasie, op. 17, to Liszt; and Liszt dedicated his great Sonata to Schumann (whose wife Clara, one of the great pianists of the century, disliked Liszt personally but occasionally played his music). During his long lifetime and during his extended career as a virtuoso, Liszt wrote a enormous amount of music for his instrument, much of it intended as crowd-pleasing but often of considerable intellectual depth. His Sonata is universally recognized as one of his best works, certainly because of originality of its conception — a single movement whose large-scale sectional structure can be regarded as a complete cyclic sonata of three-movements-in-one. Three of the main motives of the sonata are announced on the first page of the score; the fourth main motive is a grandiose D major fff, which appears a little more than a minute later. Everything else in the sonata is development, except for a cantabile “slow movement” theme that reappears near the end of the work. Liszt completed this Sonata in 1853, during the time of his closest personal association with Wagner, who just a few years later heard Liszt’s Faust Symphony and admired it enough to lift its main melody and barely disguise it in Act II of Die Walküre.
Chopin’s second set of Etudes, op. 25, were dedicated to Marie, Countess d’Agoult, who was Liszt’s mistress and the mother of his three children. As pure music, like the Opus 10 set, those of op. 25 are flawless masterpieces, with not a weak note among them. Some pianists think that as a group they are less technically difficult than the Opus 10 set; others, that they are harder. It’s probably a tossup. Many students of intermediate level play no. 1, the so-called “Aeolian Harp,” or no. 9, the very short “Butterfly.” It was said of Paderewski that he would warm up before a concert by playing several times through the furiously difficult no. 8, known as the “Etude in Sixths,” and No. 6, the “Etude in Thirds,” and no. 11, called “Winter Wind.” These have always been considered among the most challenging for any pianist, notwithstanding that the “Winter Wind” was the obvious inspiration for the popular song, “Autumn Leaves.” The set ends with a magnificent monster of arpeggios, nicknamed the “Ocean Wave.” Did Chopin know he was writing for a huge, resonant instrument that would not arrive for another 25 years?
One regrets that after 1834, Chopin didn’t write another dozen etudes (though the lovely Trois nouvelles Etudes of 1839, written for Moscheles’s piano method, suggests that he might have wanted to write even more); and that Liszt, after his twelve Transcendental Etudes of 1851, didn’t compose his projected second set that would have completed the cycle of keys. Instead of etudes, other composers, like Moscheles, Busoni, Hummel, Alkan, Chopin and Shostakovitch followed Bach’s example and wrote preludes, sometimes with fugues, in all the keys. Robert Levin famously performed a concert combining the preludes of Busoni, Moscheles and Alkan in Alkan’s idiosyncratic key ordering at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and in Stuttgart in the 1990s.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.