Pianist Christopher O’Riley, on a brief nationwide tour to promote his new 2-disc album (and Blu-ray/DVD) of iconic piano transcriptions by Franz Liszt, gave a small band of fans and friends just what they wanted Wednesday night at the Regatta Bar in Cambridge: a rousing, borderline brutal performance of select works from the album, along with plenty of entertaining story-telling.
I saw perhaps a flash of surprise or maybe even anger on O’Riley’s face as he appeared from backstage, taking in the small crowd. It should have been a full house. But then he sat down to the piano and gave us a gentle, almost delicate start to the program, an unusually translucent interpretation of an early Chopin song arranged by Liszt, “The Maiden’s Wish.” Afterwards O’Riley couldn’t help noting, when announcing the piece (there were no printed programs), what most of us have on our fridge: a Chopin-Liszt.
He entertained and educated further with his personal take on Liszt’s transcription of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, next on the program. About the Berlioz version, scored for an ensemble that would dwarf the size of the largest Beethoven orchestra, O’Riley said that Leonard Bernstein described the work as “the first piece the size of India.” And as Wagner was to come later, he noted that the work was a precursor to Wagner’s use of the ‘leitmotif.’ We heard much about the ‘program’ for the work, about the life of a young artist who falls desperately in love… “Does he see her at the Ball? Or does he just think he sees her? Or is he just thinking about her?” In any case, he gives up on her without having even met her, apparently, decides to kill himself, takes a huge opium overdose and has some pretty strange dreams about watching himself kill her in a fit of jealous rage, after which he gets to watch his own beheading. It gets better though. She returns in the final movement, “Dreams of a Witches’ Sabbath,” and her reappearance through her now completely transformed theme, or idée fixe, has her appearing to O’Riley like the woman Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson) finds in Room 217 of the “Shining.” All very picturesque. Just before launching into the huge work, a monstrous feat for the pianist, he warned: “Buckle Up!”
As referees, I think it safe to say we all declared O’Riley victor over the piano pretty early on, the latter pretty much knocked senseless (and tuneless) by the time we arrived at the especially raucous end of the 2nd movement, “The Ball.” A pensive, expressive opening to the 3rd Movement, “Scene in the Fields,” played sempre una corda per Liszt’s instructions relayed by O’Riley, gave brief respite and calm but we all knew there were more fireworks to come. In the quietest section of the movement, the person to my left pulled out a laptop and started typing away. He put it away right away, after getting (briefly) more attention than the pianist. Is this the new hip decorum?
The “March to the Scaffold” was appropriately dizzying, both watching and hearing. Check out O’Riley’s ‘film version’ of this movement on YouTube, with all the hand-crossings and multiple orchestral instruments and lines folded into one piano. It’s enough to make you lose your head.
There were some wonderful brittle effects and coloration from the pianist in the last movement, but overall, a sense of massiveness, a constant pushing forward, with a lot of pedal. This group clearly wanted a loud, showy extravaganza of sound, and that’s what they got. The “Dies Irae” that dominates the latter part of the last movement was emphasized with thunks and thuds more than bell ringing, just the effects that O’Riley was after I suspect.
There isn’t often opportunity to eat and drink at a classical music event, but that’s what the Regatta Bar encourages (quietly, no popcorn, no plastic wrappers), with consideration to the performer and listeners. There was a strange pneumatic device somewhere behind the bar/kitchen that kept popping every few seconds during the program. As the evening progressed, the piano began to take on even more of the sound of a honky-tonk saloon instrument. That seemed fine in this venue. O’Riley had to compete with kitchen noises and a loud AC system that pumped out noise (mostly white noise, thankfully) throughout the night.
A quieter, slower work, relatively speaking, followed: the Wagner (Liszt/Moszkowski/O’Riley): “Prelude & Liebestod” from Tristan and Isolde. O’Riley, praising both Liszt and Moszkowski for their transcriptions, decided to do a “mash-up” of their versions and his own, finding a way to “shoe-horn in” some elements that both were “reluctant” to include. There was much ebb and flow to his rendition, and more big climaxes.
To conclude, one of most ridiculously difficult works in the piano repertoire, the Mozart (Liszt): Réminiscences de Don Juan (Don Juan Fantasy), a super-condensed tribute to Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Again, O’Riley’s commentary helped set the stage. We learned that Liszt’s reordered the events, wanting to get rid of all the doom and gloom that concludes the opera and end with a party instead.
More on this reordering from Charles Rosen: “The finest of [Liszt’s] opera fantasies…are much more than that: they juxtapose different parts of the opera in ways that bring out a new significance, while the original dramatic sense of the individual number and its place within the opera is never out of sight.” (Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation, p. 528).
I’ve also read that Liszt meant to strike terror not only into the hearts of his audiences, but in the performer too. One look at the score is enough to do that. The pyrotechnics that open, close, and are interspersed throughout are more than just daunting. The work(out) that O’Riley gave us was quite a visual as well as sonic display of power piano playing, with so many thunderous chords, roiling arpeggios and chromatic scales, hand gymnastics spanning the keyboard, and O’Riley looming over his tiny iPad.
I picked up the album of “O’Riley’s Liszt,” for comparison’s sake. I’m enjoying it as I write, for its power, speed, and brashness, but also for its clarity, wit, and grace (especially in the Mozart transcription), elements of playing less in evidence at the Regatta Bar, where much seemed a little forced and rushed. But a bar brawl was more the order of the evening, and it’s fair to say that we, too, were knocked out. I’m glad I own the album. You might add it to your Chopin-Liszt, even though there is no Chopin (Liszt) on the album.