Last month, Hyperion released their mammoth collection of the complete piano music of Franz Liszt, an undertaking which involves the massive total of 99 CDs (£250). This month they added a download option (£200). Total playing time for the lot is 7255 minutes 52 seconds, which is just about 5 days of non-stop listening. The recording project was a remarkable undertaking, of course. The first release was in July 1987, the final one in January this year. Leslie Howard has been the pianist throughout.
This all begs the question: why bother? Strangely (and I think I’ve mentioned this at one of our music sessions) my very first CD purchase was of Liszt piano music, despite the fact that I’m no great lover of much of it (generally more show than substance for my taste). I’m not alone in this opinion, and poor old Mr Liszt has been roundly castigated by critic after critic for the often poor quality of much of his enormous output (of which the piano music is just part). The other day, I came across an excellent article by Damian Thompson in The Spectator magazine. In Hit Liszt, he muses about how much of Liszt’s music shows him at or near his best, and how many of the 120 CDs it would take to hold Liszt’s entire output would remain if a collector decided it was time for a bit of spring cleaning. A first attempt reduces things to just 5 CDs, while a more ruthless set of criteria pares things down to just one double album.
I urge you to read the entire article. It’s well written, and makes several good points. Just one quote to give a flavour:
With Liszt, however, not only is there lots of irredeemable rubbish, but elsewhere it’s difficult to distinguish the tinsel from the magnificence, as Schumann put it. The same piece can sound noble or overblown, heartfelt or syrupy, depending on the interpretation. You could never say that Liszt is ‘music better than it can be played’: no composer of piano music is so completely at the mercy of the performer.
A bit harsh? Actually, the article isn’t as anti-Liszt as it may at first appear (the author has nothing but praise for the B minor piano sonata, for instance — “the greatest piano sonata composed since the death of Schubert”), and concludes by making an appeal (sort of) for a re-appraisal of Liszt’s work.
Remember, we’ve scheduled our own Liszt Day on 22nd October. Let’s see then who’s delved a bit and come up with a hidden gem or two.