When did you last see a piano recitalist in what used to be called full evening dress? Thursday night at the Tsai Performance Center, the elegant Italian Roberto Plano gave an unusual faculty recital comprising Franz Liszt’s complete Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. Plano’s playing throughout was immense, noble, a marvel of richness and poise, every moment dispatched with élan.
Liszt wrote the set of 10 religio-mystico-themed pieces, short and long, influenced by devotional poems of Lamartine, while he was attempting the transition from rockstar touring to a more private life of musical creation. The preface:
There are meditative souls that solitude and contemplation raise toward ideas that are infinite, that is, toward religion; all their thoughts are converted to zeal and prayer, all their existence is a mute hymn to the Divinity and to hope.
And so on. Harmonies rarely gets performed as intended. (It has nothing like the popularity of the big Schumann and Chopin cycles.) Funérailles and Bénédiction de Dieu are the usual extracts. It was gratifying to hear the 10 altogether, but in that hour-and-a-half-long form they still do embody, to my mind, some of the hoariest charges against Liszt, then and now: that he opts often for writing series after series of sensational effects, the melodies slender, whether above or within. It is ever evocative, regularly stunning to hear and witness, highly various, but not engrossing like other composers. Still, given Plano’s way with Liszt, the masses of arpeggiated chords, the thick sprints up and down the keys, then quiet, then intensifications, and repeat, it hardly matters.
Invocation opened confidently (and proceeded ravishingly) with a splendor of grandiose octaves. Ave Maria, like the later Pater Noster and Miserere, nods backward toward open modal harmonies, as Liszt tries for relative spareness. Bénédiction was taken with utmost seriousness, too slowly perhaps (though not at an Arrau pace), at once grand and luscious under Plano, but when the motion tends to the static, the undeveloped, episodic issue feels true. Pensée des morts resumes the flutters, supple hammerings, storming crescendos, dismal conclusions, to frightening result. Plano made jaws drop even further. Hymne de l’enfant offers songlike relief. Plano’s left hand in Funerailles overpowered all, again to terrifying outcome; here and elsewhere the pianist reached liftoff, rising from the bench, making the music into a freight train of elegy. The ending achieved a level of sonic power I have seldom, possibly never heard before. Miserere rippled within ripples and more ripples. Andante lagrimoso should become an encore, gesturing as it does toward simple sad pop. Cantique d’amour similarly starts at salon scale and then, as always, grows into imposing drama. Whew.
Plano recently recorded a CD of the set for Decca, equally impressive albeit slightly more relaxed. If Liszt is your paprikash, buy it, and do not miss Plano’s next recital in any case.
The encore featured total mimicry of Francisco Tarrega’s Recuerdos de Alhambra, and Plano’s tremolo transcription and his execution skills were such that if you closed your eyes it was mostly indistinguishable from this.
I am hoping experienced readers will chime in about Liszt’s piano music, the lack of structured sonic narrative in favor of scene painting, with the meanders making it hard to see the form of the idea. Both Brahms and Clara Schumann labeled some of his compositions “terrible”. Charles Rosen, who studied as an adolescent with a student of Liszt, rose to the defense:
It was indifference to the quality of his material that earned Liszt the contempt of his most distinguished contemporaries and of many of the most respectable critics and historians of posterity. It was, nevertheless, his greatest strength. It made it possible for him to manipulate the material ruthlessly, to concentrate on effects of realization with unprecedented intensity, and to integrate styles and techniques of performance into composition in a new way. His invention of novel keyboard effects and his mastery of musical gesture have always been undervalued …. The conception is worked out directly within the sonority as a sculptor works directly in clay or marble. The instrumental sound is shaped into music.
Either way, it must be a tempting problem, given the digital facility, to treat texture and tune with nearly the same attention. Some of the solution obviously must lie in interpretation and approach: Horowitz, performing Funérailles only 45 years after Liszt’s death, and quite as the composer is said to have played, knew how to keep topmost lines salient.
Boston University’s music department may be a treasure a bit unappreciated in this musical town. Plano’s great keyboard mastery aside, this particular Tsai piano certainly sounded as magnificent as any instrument around—and that impression remained after it had been pounded somewhat out of tune. On the other hand, the seats in Tsai, and even worse in the School of Fine Arts’s concert hall, are brutal; so when you next donate to the school, be sure to specify “performance seating” in your gift.
David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 50 years, with special interest in the keyboard.