The Long Tail of Franz Liszt

Thoughts on Leslie Howard’s 99 CD collection The Complete Liszt Piano Music on Hyperion.


I knew Liszt at an early age but can’t remember what or why. I’m almost certain that I performed in an orchestral version of some Hungarian Rhapsody and probably had LP recordings of them along with other popular works like the Mephisto Waltzes or Piano Concertos.

When I was in college I attempted to teach myself how to play the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C sharp minor on the piano and at some point I must have read Searle’s book on Liszt as my copy contains some notes in my handwriting.

When I lived in NY and was composing regularly I became interested in the tone poems because of their innovative formal construction.

While there I remember hearing a performance Sonata. It made a big impression on me. It showed how far one could expand a classical form—removing almost all of its limitations while still providing a comprehendible structure.

Sometime in the early 2000’s I came back to Liszt again when I was reading Alan Walker’s three-volume biography. There was much more music available to me at that time and I was finally able to gain some sense of the breadth and diversity of his work even if I was never able to fully grasp the breadth and extent of his oeuvre.

Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven & Bach all have extensive catalogs. Yet they are easier to grasp. The classicists stuck to common practice forms making it easy to follow their progress in major genres. Bach’s forms predate the common practice era but nevertheless largely fit into a few easily recognized genres.

There is almost nothing standard about Liszt on the other hand. He did not write string quartets, his one Sonata stretches the genre to the breaking point as does his two highly programmatic “symphonies.” His piano concertos are closer to the standard perhaps because he defined what a standard piano concerto would be.

I knew he had a very extensive catalog of piano works but never had access to scores or recordings of more than a tiny fraction of them. Now the complete Leslie Howard recordings are available in an inexpensive and complete edition. This makes it possible to trace how the his extensive transcriptions were a testing ground for ideas that he would expand and elaborate in his original compositions, much the same way Beethoven did in his composition notebooks.


~ by severalfourmany on January 23, 2012.

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