Friday, December 5, 2014

Magyar rapszódiák, Part One

No. 176 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at

For the next couple of weeks, I wanted to spend some time considering a set of works that – for the most part – are both well-known and fun to listen to.

The Hungarian Rhapsodies constitute a set of 19 piano pieces based on Hungarian folk themes, composed by Franz Liszt during 1846–1853, and later in 1882 and 1885. Liszt also arranged versions for orchestra, piano duet and piano trio.

Some are better known than others, with Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 being particularly famous.

Liszt incorporated many themes he had heard in his native western Hungary and which he believed to be folk music, though many were in fact contemporary tunes written by members of the Hungarian upper middle class, or by composers of the time, and performed publically by Roma (Gypsy) bands.
The large scale structure of each was influenced by the verbunkos, a Hungarian dance in several parts, each with a different tempo. Within this structure, Liszt preserved the two main structural elements of typical Gypsy improvisation—the lassan ("slow") and the friska ("fast"). At the same time, Liszt incorporated a number of effects unique to the sound of Gypsy bands, especially the pianistic equivalent of the cimbalom.

In their original piano form, the Hungarian Rhapsodies are noted for their difficulty. As is the norm for much of Liszt’s piano solo output, the thinking has to have been to use these works to showcase and display his legendary technique at the keyboard.

All nineteen rhapsodies will not fit our usual 75 to 90 minute podcast format, so I had to come up with a logical way of splitting them up over two podcasts… To do so, I chose to consider first the orchestral versions of the rhapsodies.

Indeed, Rhapsodies no. 2, 5, 6, 9, 12, and 14 were arranged for orchestra by Franz Doppler, with revisions by Liszt himself. These orchestrations appear as S.359 in the Searle catalogue; however, the numbers given to these versions were different from their original numbers. The orchestral rhapsodies numbered 1-6 correspond to the piano solo versions numbered 14, 2, 6, 12, 5 and 9 respectively.

In my record collection, I have two sets of these orchestral rhapsodies – one by Kurt Mazur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra (from the mid-80’s) and a second as part of a two-disc set of Liszt orchestral music performed by the orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper (the Vienna Philharmonic under an assumed name, from the late 1950’s) under the legendary Herrmann Scherchen, whose rough-and-ready style is suits the mood of these pieces so well. Our montage features the latter, in a digitally restored version.

Back next week with the other 13, in piano form.

I think you will love this music too!

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