IN: Reviews

Appreciating Lindsey’s Liszt Anew

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Ian Lindsey (file photo)

Though Boston has no dearth of extraordinary pianists, any list of them should include the dazzling but little-known Ian Lindsey. After receiving his BM and MM from NEC, where he studied with Randall Hodgkinson, Lindsey has spent the past two decades teaching at Rivers School Conservatory, Dana Hall, and privately. At odd intervals, he shows up in public to give luminous, astonishing recitals of treacherous music. He then retreats to his life of teaching.  

I have tried to hear all of Lindsey’s recitals for the past 20 years, and I remain dumbfounded about why he has never been better known. Perhaps he couldn’t care less about self-promoting. Ten years ago, he played ALL of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, in the two most exciting concerts I heard that year. [Reviewed HERE.]

Lindsey has been fascinated—one might say preoccupied—with Liszt for years. Around 2000, he made an excellent recording, “Lisztian Lindsey,” and for his Glissando program he played an all-Liszt program honoring the composer’s 210th birthday. With the possible exception of Marc-André Hamelin, I cannot think of another mere human who would take on this task and perform it so astonishingly. Why did so few souls show up to hear a concert was as good as any on the far-better-attended Celebrity Series?

The concert, which took place in First Church Boston two weeks  ago, featured a number of rarely heard Liszt gems, including Second Elegy; Fantasia and Fugue on the BACH Theme; Sunt lacrymae rerum; and Sursum corda! (the exclamation point in the latter title is found in Liszt’s autograph). So, even for those unfamiliar with Liszt’s piano music other than the overplayed B-minor Sonata, this provided revelatory material to appreciate Liszt anew.

Though I know the piano repertoire rather well, I am embarrassed to admit that almost all of Lindsey’s selections were terra incognita. To hear them on my computer allowed me to listen again and again, and with each hearing I wondered, aside from its difficulty, why this fabulous music is played live so rarely. The piece I knew, the pianistic tone poem, Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este (The Fountains of the Villa d’Este), came across poetically and contemplatively. (No wonder that, decades later, Debussy was drawn to composing water sounds in his preludes La Cathédrale engloutie and Ondine.) I enjoyed Valse Oubliée’s calmer charm after the volcanic Sturm und Drang of the Fantasy and Fugue on the BACH theme. The First Mephisto Waltz thrilled with its demonic fireworks. (This piece has always reminded me of Liberace.) If played by other pianists, some of the pieces might have verged of being too long. But Lindsey sustained my interest through some relentless technical challenges in pieces that could have been equally impressive even at half their killer lengths.

Lindsey wrote that Liszt, along with Schumann, famously championed the 19th-century concept of fusing literature and music:

After coining the term “Symphonic Poem,” Liszt wrote no fewer than 13 examples, each depicting a specific story (or “program”), as well as much programmatic solo piano music, such as his Dante Sonata and other works included in the three sets entitled Années de pèlerinage (Years of Wandering). As an artist-philosopher keenly interested in exploring the interaction of the divine, human, and diabolical forces, Liszt was quite obsessed with the late-medieval story of Faust and its later incarnations by Goethe and Lenau, and wrote a total of four Mephisto Waltzes, a Mephisto Polka, and a Faust Symphony. (Many Romantic composers, such as Berlioz, Schumann, Gounod, and Mahler, shared that obsession and wrote towering “Faust” works of their own.)

I really enjoyed Gondoliera, from Venezia e Napoli, which reminded me of the piano pieces of Liszt harpists now perform. This kinder and gentler Liszt touched me in a way Liszt rarely does. I wish there were a commercial recording of Lindsey playing this Liszt program. And while he’s at it, I wish he’d record the Hungarian Rhapsodies. Lindsey’s playing and Liszts’s music kept me spellbound to the end of his recital, and, thanks to technology, I heard it again, and then again. Fantastic program, amazing pianist.  

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

Lindsey played Liszt’s:
Second Elegy
Fantasia and Fugue on the BACH Theme
Valse oubliée No. 1
Mephisto Waltz No. 1 
Venezia e Napoli: Gondoliera—Canzone—Tarantella
Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este
Sunt lacrymae rerum
Sursum corda!

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