Friday, December 12, 2014

Magyar rapszódiák, Part Two

No. 177 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


Today’s podcast is the second in our two-part look at Liszt’s 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies. After considering the sub-set of six that were set for orchestra, we now turn to the remaining 13, in their original piano solo setting.

Franz Liszt's 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies use gypsy tunes from his native Hungary, and combine them with his own dazzling piano writing. The colorful and flamboyant pieces which result tax pianists as much as delight listeners!

Interestingly, however, Liszr was born on the Hungarian side of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, yet spent most of his formative years in Vienna and later in Paris. Liszt's father played the piano, violin, cello and guitar and had been in the service of Prince Nikolaus II Esterházy. In that musical environment, he met Haydn, Hummel and Beethoven whom he knew personally. At age six, Franz began listening attentively to his father's piano playing and showed an interest in both sacred and Romani (Gypsy) music – so the seed was sewn for these rhapsodies quite early.

As Liszt toured Europe as a piano virtuoso, notably in the late 1830’s, he returned to his native Hungary where he re-encountered those folk tunes of his youth, and from there the Rhapsodies are finally hatched.

All the works bear dedications to important Hungarians of the day (Szerdahelyi, Teleki, Festetics, Kázmér Esterházy, Mme Reviczky, Apponyi, Orczy, Augusz, Egressy), or to musicians with Hungarian interests (Joachim, Ernst, von Bülow). The later works express an even stronger affinity with Hungary: Rhapsodies XVI–XVIII are entirely original compositions in the Hungarian manner, whilst XIX returns to the methods employed in the earlier works, this time citing the origin of the themes. The last four Rhapsodies were all published in Hungary, generally with Hungarian and German titles, and with Liszt’s name in his now-preferred Hungarian style: Liszt Ferenc. Rapsodie hongroise I was begun no earlier than 1847, and uses material from the Consolations. The piece is in the familiar csárdás pattern of lassú and friss: fast and slow sections, each with a mixture of elements of improvisation and variation.

More insight on the individual rhapsodies can be found in the excellent “introduction” to the complete rhapsodies recorded by Leslie Howard for Hyperion. It is hard to characterize the level of pianistic gymnastics required to perform these works – especially as I am not a pianist myself. If I were to provide a synopsis of any one of these, I’d say something like “a mix of melancholy, glittering keyboard acrobatics and stormy, rousing dance”.

The pianists we have retained for this montage constitute a varied mix of stellar soloists: Misha Dichter, Nelson Freire, Alfred Cortot, Grigory Ginsburg, Alfred Brendel and Vladimir Horowitz.

I Think you will love this music too!

As a post-scipt to this post, here is a complete set of all 19 rhapsodies, by an unidentified performer.

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