IN: Reviews

Summiting a Keyboard Everest

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(BMInt staff photo)

Minsoo Sohn performed in the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts concert series on Friday, finally delivering a much-anticipated all-Liszt program four-years after its original 2020 concert date, a victim of Covid shutdowns. With two-thirds of the seats taken, a very good crowd for this type of event, Jordan Hall  buzzed with curiosity about the pianist who helped shape the latest worldwide pianistic sensation Yunchan Lim, at 18 the youngest-ever Van Cliburn winner. Just three weeks earlier, Lim played the “Rach 3” with the BSO in four triumphant sold-out performances, some critics hailing Lim’s performances of Rachmaninoff’s iconic 3rd piano concerto as the “best ever.” 

Minsoo Sohn, a very handsome man, entered stage right with grace and dignity, an elegant movie star version of a pianist, much as one imagines Franz Liszt from two centuries earlier. 

The Consolations are unusual for Liszt. Lyrical and melodic, they pose no technical challenges. The trick is to play them with musicality, to find profound depth of emotion in their simplicity. Sohn’s mastery is evident, his playing nuanced, his dynamic control exquisite, especially in the p to ppp range, his shaping of phrases clear, the use of rubato thoughtful. Consolation No. 3 (Lento placido) in E Major/C-sharp minor, in a favorite most people recognize, reminiscent of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 27 No. 2, and is based on a folksong which Liszt used later in his Hungarian Rhapsody No. 1. Sohn’s fingers find the ephemeral beauty of the melody and delicate LH accompaniment.

So what is a consolation? Pianists know nocturnes, waltzes and sonatas, but the term consolation is nebulous. Liszt’s explanation to his publisher was cheeky but revealed nothing: “six fantasy pieces [that] can provide consolation for those benevolent pianists who have tortured themselves with their other pieces.” Similarly to h0w homicide is a pale euphemism for murder, to console (or worse, comfort) is a feeble translation of Trösten, a German word that conjures images of grieving widows and crying children. Linguistic siblings, Trösten and Tränen (tears) look and sound alike, and a better translation of Trösten might be “to mop up tears.” In addition, in the 1800’s, in an era when life was hard, death and sickness lurked everywhere and people sought solace in Christ and God, the word carried strong Christian overtones, and is ubiquitous in sacred music. Not only in hymns. but in Brahms German Requiem: “Ich will euch trösten,” “Nun Herr, wess soll ich mich trösten? Ich hoffe auf dich,” “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen, denn sie sollen getröstet werden.” And of course Bach cantatas: “Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt” (Cantata 151) as well as in the Saint Matthew Passion. That E Major, a key that Liszt often reserved for his religious works, pervades the six Consolations, points to their sacred nature. 

It is well known that Liszt was religious, late in life ordained as an abbot. Less well known is that as a young man he wished to attend seminary school, a goal his mother thankfully squashed. A quote from Janie Burdeti’s handout essay attributed to Vladimir Feltsman is illuminating: “Franz Liszt carried a walking stick with the faces of St. Francis of Assisi, Faust’s Gretchen, and Mephistopheles carved on it. Apparently, he longed for the Divine, craved women and worldly pleasures, and was fascinated by the diabolical.” Despite Liszt’s generosity, the charity events, financial assistance and free lessons to aspiring musicians, perhaps attempts to buy his way into heaven, Liszt’s personal life was a train wreck. His many romantic escapades ruined women’s reputations, their marriages, and sometimes even their lives. He was the rock star of his era, the four Beatles rolled into one person. “Song without End,” which depicts the extent of adulation of Liszt’s fans, is well worth watching. The film spans the period when Liszt’s Consolations and Etudes were published; Jorge Bolet is heard on the soundtrack. 

Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes comprised the second half of the program. Wha Kyang Byun, brilliant pianist and instructor, came from Korea to make Boston her home, much like Sohn and Lim, and was Sohn’s teacher for 12 years at NEC. She described these etudes as Mount Everest. Playing all of them at once is a Herculean effort, requiring not only physical endurance, but the mental challenge of keeping one’s concentration for one hour and five minutes of brutally difficult repertoire. The late Russell Sherman, to whose remembrance this recital was dedicated, was married to Wha Kyung Byun and his 1976 recording of these etudes [HERE] is just amazing, and obviously influenced Sohn’s performance. And just as Russell Sherman passed the baton of the Liszt etudes to Sohn, so Sohn passed it to his pupil Lim, who recorded the etudes live in Ft. Worth in 2022. In another recording by a local pianist, Janice Weber plays the 1837 version [HERE]; she will perform the Beethoven Emperor concerto with the Cape Ann Symphony on March 17th.

Liszt first started writing these etudes at age 14, dedicating them to Czerny, revising them in 1837, when Schumann reputedly commented, “they are wonderful, a shame that only Liszt will be able to play them and they won’t live on.” Well, Schumann was wrong. Liszt revised the etudes again in 1861, simplifying some passages by eliminating repeated notes and dispensing with intervals greater than a tenth; this third version that is the one generally played nowadays.

The Preludio starts with a loud chord, followed by a series of arpeggios. Only 25 measures long, it is playful and charming. The Etude No. 2 Molto vivace is based on a repeated-note figure, building in tempo and intensity, with lots of arpeggios, broken chords and constant leaps. Paysage (Landscape) is the most tranquil of the set, providing serenity sandwiched between two tumultuous compositions.

Etude No. 4, Mazeppa, is named after a 17th -century Ukrainian military leader. After learning that Tsar Peter I was going to relieve him of his command of the Zaparozhian army, Mazeppa defected and sided with King Charles XII of Sweden. Anti-Russian elements in Ukraine from the 18thcentury onwards were derogatorily referred to as Mazepintsy. His legend is alive to this day, as a monument to Mazeppa was to be erected in Slava Square in Kiev in 2010, and his image is on the 10-Hryvnya Ukrainian currency note. 

Liszt included a Victor Hugo poem about Mazeppa in his score. The story goes that as punishment for an affair with a Polish count’s wife, he was tied naked to a wild horse and the horse was set loose, and Mazeppa was only released when the horse died of exhaustion. Perhaps this was a scenario that gave Liszt nightmares in regard to his own life. This etude is almost a ballade, telling a vivid story, a wonderful jewel. Sohn’s playing was visceral, as he brought the galloping horse alive and rendered its death throes tragic and graphic with abrupt staccatos. 

Etude No. 5 Feux follets  (Will-o’-the-wisps), or fire of the goblins as a more literal translation, refers to the light that can be seen over swampy bogs at night, the myth being that goblins lure unwary travelers who followed these lights to their death. The pianist’s fingers flew over the keyboard with a delicate touch, creating an eerie, sinister mood. Etude No. 6, “Vision” has a funereal character, the Dies irae (day of wrath) motif prominent throughout. Etude No. 7 Eroica is a march, and in the same key signature as Beethoven’s Symphony.

Etude No. 8 Wilde Jagd (wild hunt), the term popularized by Jacob Grimm, author of famous fairy tales, referring to a Germanic legend, where fairies or valkyries hunt human souls and bring them to the underworld, one more example of Liszt’s fascination with the diabolical. A sweet interlude of innocence, reminiscent of the Mephisto Waltz No. 1., Etude No. 9 Ricordanza provided a canvas for Sohn to shine, creating colors and textures, a musical portrait of nostalgia.

Etude No. 10 Allegro agitato molto is the pinnacle of the set, an absolute masterpiece. Busoni named it Appasionata, and it’s in the same F minor key as Beethoven sonata. There is an intense longing, desperation and tenderness in these notes. One can picture a young lover, out in a storm, proclaiming his love only to have the words disappear in the wind, where they die a lonely death, never to resonate in his beloved’s ear. Russell Sherman’s rendition remains my absolute favorite.

The final two etudes, Harmonies du soir (Evening harmonies) and Chasse-neige (Blizzard) are well known competition pieces. Whereas the first is peaceful and lovely, the second starts with a soft snowfall and quickly grows into swirling scales that race up and down the keyboard, creating a blizzard effect that showcases how far ahead of his time Liszt was, with the textures getting progressively darker until the snow covers everything.

One problem many people have with Liszt is that eventually it all sounds the same, there are so many notes, they simply overwhelm and exhaust the listener’s ability to take in more. But this did not happen in this recital, and the question is why?

Individual items in a concert can be pushed to the max, and with Liszt often to the point where one feels an impulse to say, “Please sir, no, you’ll break the piano”. When these etudes are played in a set however, there is a definite need to take the foot off the gas, which Sohn wisely did. So when a forte does appear, it is shocking in its intensity. Another benefit from this approach is that it more closely resembles what Liszt would have sounded like in 1835, on his preferred Erard piano, which did not have the power or volume of modern Steinways.

Sohn is a wonderful ambassador for Franz Liszt. Many people in the audience who were not great fans, will be after this concert, thanks to Sohn’s virtuosity, creativity and insight.

Taking his bows, the pianist was inundated in flowers, and his encore was a quiet adieu in the form of a lullaby Wiegenlied, by Liszt.

Sibylle Barrasso is a long-time piano student of Robert Poli. She has played in piano competitions in Pickman Hall and Chicago, is on the board of directors of the Boston Piano Amateurs Association and has played for audiences in the Boston Symphony Cafe since 2010.

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