Roger Owens – Wandering Spirit – Franz Liszt – Piano Works – CR4838


“A musician of unquestioned richness of talent.”


FRANZ LISZT (1811-1886) The Devil disguised as a priest?

Liszt’s personality was both complex and contradictory. His early years were spent touring extensively and he rapidly acquired a legendary reputation as the greatest virtuoso pianist the world had ever known. He virtually invented the solo recital and laid the foundations of modem piano technique. A performance given by Liszt at this time was almost guaranteed to send his audience towards the emotional peaks of hysterical ecstasy. Following a triumphant success in Italy in 1838, he wrote: “It would be impossible to ask more in the way of satisfaction of one’s vanity; the greatest people have not only received me with all possible consideration but have been the first to express the wish to meet me. As for the women – they are everywhere crazy about me”.

It was during this year that he wrote the Grand Galop Chromatique,a remarkable encore piece of outrageous virtuosity, which was sure to please his enthusiastic public. Yet the music also displays a certain playfulness and lightness of touch reminiscent of a polka by Johann Strauss.

The Hungarian Rhapsody No.6 of 1847 presents further virtuoso effects. A swaggering march-like opening, followed by a brief instalment of quick music punctuated by syncopated accents, leads to the seductive gypsy- influenced improvisations of the slower middle section, before eventually culminating in an exciting finale designed to show off passages of octaves played at a frenzied pace.

Despite obviously enjoying the adulation and success earned by his resounding fame and excessive lifestyle, Liszt began to experience an overwhelming sense of guilt which is expressed in a letter to his mistress, Countess Marie d’Agoult, written shortly after the completion of this rhapsody: “I have conceived a disgust for my piano……I do not know why the crowd listens to me and pays me. The acclamations of the crowd, the intoxications and excesses of my life, and the banal and lying embraces of my mistresses have resounded the pitiless funeral bell of that fatal hour when I left you……’’

He later gave up the life of the travelling virtuoso and became increasingly drawn towards the Roman Catholic Church – he eventually took minor Holy Orders – and by 1860, felt moved to write a testament to express his faith: “I am writing this down on the 14th September, the day on which the Church celebrates the Festival of the Holy Cross. The denomination of this festival is also that of the glowing and mysterious feeling which has pierced my entire life as with a sacred wound. Yes, “Jesus Christ on the Cross”a yearning longing after the Cross and the raising of the Cross, – this was ever my true inner calling; I have felt it in my innermost heart ever since my seventeenth year, in which I implored with humility and tears that I might be permitted to enter the Paris Seminary; at that time I hoped it would be granted to me to live the life of the saints and perhaps even to die a martyr’s death. This, alas! has not happened – yet, in spite of the transgressions and errors which I have committed, and for which I feel sincere repentance and contrition, the holy light of the Cross has never been entirely withdrawn from me. At times, indeed, the refulgence of……this Divine light has overflowed my entire soul. – I thank God for this, and shall die with my soul fixed upon the Cross, our redemption, our highest bliss; and, in acknowledgement of my belief, I wish before my death to receive the holy sacraments of the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman Church, and thereby to attain the forgiveness and remission of all my sins. Amen.”

The Ave Maria (later subtitled The Bells of Rome) of 1862 echoes these sentiments. This highly descriptive music seems to evoke a pilgrimage towards a heavenly vision which gradually becomes brighter as it leads the listener towards spiritual fulfilment. As the main climax is reached, the Cathedral bells are heard and these sounds slowly die away before the piece ends, in quiet contemplation, with a harmonised version of the five-note motif heard at the outset.

The Berceuse, in the more ornate second version of 1862, continues this spiritual mood whilst also displaying some adventurous chromatic harmonies. It is based on Chopin’s Berceuse, which Liszt performed in recital, and there are many similarities between the two works. The distinguished pianist Clifford Curzon, who himself made a recording of this work in 1963, explained: “Liszt’s Berceuse is not only in the same key, but much of it is also based on the same rhythmical alternation of tonic and dominant harmony; it contains at least one striking allusion to Chopin’s work; and there is in both the same hypnotic atmosphere.” This is, without doubt, one of Liszt’s most beautiful works which has been unjustly neglected and deserves to be heard more frequently.

There was always a suspicion that, even during the most devotional periods of Liszt’s life, the demonic spectres were never too far away. This proved to be the case when he composed the first Mephisto Waltz (subtitled The Dance in the Village Inn), the second of two episodes from Lenau’s Faust for which he also wrote a stunning orchestral version. It is a daring piece of programmatic music which is best described by Louis Kentner, one of the pioneering Liszt pianists of the twentieth century, who wrote: “Faust and Mephistopheles (The Devil) stray into a village inn where wedding festivities arein full swing……Mephistopheles seizes a violin from one of the band and, by the demoniacal fire of his playing, whips the dancers into a frenzy. Faster and faster gets the dance, more and more unbridled the dancers; Faust finds himself a beautiful wench with whom he dances out into the open, followed by the sound of Mephisto’s violin, into the wood where only the sound of the nightingale’s song is heard and where the couple are ‘swallowed by the roaring sea of lust’. “This is a phenomenal work of diabolical, if not orgasmic, virtuosity and it seems almost unbelievable that it was written during the same year as the Berceuse.

The demons from within have still not been totally extinguished in the concert study Waldesrauschen (Forest murmurs) of 1862/3, which includes a stormy climatic section containing dazzling leaps and a scorching scalic descent. Yet, for the most part, this music shows Liszt at his most picturesque as a gentle breeze winds its way through an idyllic woodland scene.

The Impromptu (subtitled Nocturne) of 1872 is very similar in structure to Waldesrauschen. A very lyrical opening, which is almost reminiscent of an operatic aria, leads to a more impassioned central section before fading away into a spiritual haze of translucence.

However, there is one work which successfully combines all of the conflicting aspects of Liszt’s character. The Sonata in B minor (1853) remains one of the landmarks of the piano literature encompassing beauty, passion and virtuosity, whilst expressing a multitude of emotions ranging from the angelic to the demonic. Its success owes a great deal to the influence of Beethoven’s late style in particular, where he began to abandon the established sonata forms of Haydn and Mozart in favour of a more concise means of expression. As a result, Liszt writes a sonata which effectively combines a loose sonata form with his own metamorphosis of themes, later to become a feature of his Symphonic Poems. This not only stamps his own personal character on the sonata, but also results in a new concept in the organisation of instrumental music. Liszt’s work would influence many sonatas of the future, most notably Berg’s Sonata in B minor, Op. 1(1908).

The Sonata in B minor consists of six main themes, three of which are stated on the opening page. They are:- the quiet and unusual descending scale passages (Theme 1);the sudden loud octave leaps (Theme II); followed immediately by a grumbling left-hand figuration accompanied by syncopated chords in the right hand (Theme III). The music gradually becomes more agitated and leads to the main B minor theme (Theme IV) consisting of an aggressive right-hand melody combined with an extended arpeggio figuration in the left hand. A virtuoso double-octave passage leads to the Grandioso section in D major (Theme V) which gives vent to much power and passion before settling into a more beautiful and peaceful melody, also in D major, based on Theme III.

Another climax is soon reached and is followed by a soothing passage which effectively becomes the ‘slow movement’ of this continuous work (Theme VI). As this section progresses the descending scales, first heard at the opening of the work, return and the Sonata appears to be reaching a prayerful conclusion.

This illusion is quickly shattered as a lively fugato springs to life with its jagged rhythms and leads to the recapitulation of the main B minor theme (Theme IV). Many former themes are now heard, some

in different guises and often in new keys, and it soon becomes obvious that the music is moving in a new direction. The music builds in tension and excitement before exploding into another furious double-octave passage, in B major, which is effectively the climax of the work. Liszt originally wanted to end the Sonata at this point, at its loudest dynamic and with the maximum amount of bravura. However, he eventually changed his mind and this resulted in the return of the quiet spiritual atmosphere which permeates the work from time to time. The music remains in B major and gradually dies away until we are left with just a single low B; a complete cyclic unity has now been achieved. It is, perhaps, fitting that the last word should be left to Wagner who, on hearing Liszt’s pupil Karl Klindworth play this Sonata in 1855, wrote to Liszt saying: “This Sonata is beautiful beyond belief, great, loveable, deep, and noble, just as you are.” © Roger Owens. July 1999

ROGER OWENS was born in Pembrokeshire and studied piano with the late Peter Gould, former Head of Music, BBC Radio, and at the Royal College of Music with John Barstow. During a distinguished College career, from which he graduated with an M.Mus. degree in performance studies with distinction (1994), he was awarded many of their most prestigious awards including the Chappell and Tagore Gold Medals and became the first recipient of the President Emérita Scholarship awarded by H.M. The Queen Mother.

Subsequent innumerable successes have included first prize at the Royal Over-Seas League Piano Competition (1994), the Harriet Cohen Memorial Music Award (1996) and the Bryden Thomson Memorial Recital Prize at the Scottish International Piano Competition (1998).

Described as uone of the most formidable talents to emerge from the RCM in recent years99, he has broadcast many times on British television and radio, most notably for BBC Radio Three and Classic FM.

Acceptance as a member of both the Countess of Munster Recital Scheme and the late Lord Menuhin’s “Live Music Now!” has led to performances as soloist and chamber musician throughout Britain and Europe, where his depth of musical understanding combined with a phenomenal mastery of the keyboard have been greeted with enthusiastic acclaim. His wide-ranging repertoire encompasses contemporary music and has included premièred works by the Welsh composers Alun Hoddinott and Lyn Davies, whose Fantasy Nocturne: Last Exit to Brooklyn was written especially for him for performance at the 1997 North Wales Music Festival. A highly successful London debut recital was given at St. John’s Smith Square in 1998.

Review: I – Western Mail

“A musician of unquestioned richness of talent.”

This recital of Liszt’s piano music is Roger Owens debut recording.

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