Skip to page content

Composed: 1861 (final version)
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 14, 1921, with soloist Richard Buhlig, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting

The name of Franz Liszt, a westward-looking – to Germany and France – Hungarian rather than a nationalist, is one of the most familiar in the history of music, yet with the exception of a handful of pieces, including, of course, his two piano concertos (which, truth to tell, used to be heard far more often than they are today), have become the province of the archivist rather than the listener. His love life, the intimate details of his relationships with the Countess d’Agoult (the mother of his children, including Cosima, who would marry Richard Wagner) and Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, among others, and his allure as the paragon of the Romantic artist had infinite appeal for biographers. Aside from his power as a pianist and his prowess as a conductor (in which capacity he introduced to the world major works by Schumann, Berlioz, and Wagner), his enormous influence as a composer (without whom Berlioz, Wagner, Mahler, and Richard Strauss might have turned out to be quite different composers from those we know) is incalculable.

Today, the brilliantly waspish critic Eduard Hanslick’s grouping of Liszt with Berlioz and Wagner as the three “most offensive and lunatic” composers of all time seems tantamount to the highest praise. But there was no denying, even by Hanslick, Liszt’s genius as a performer. During the late 1830s, at the very time Liszt was at work on his first draft of the present Concerto, pianist-conductor Sir Charles Hallé compared Liszt’s playing to that of Chopin, with which he was also well-acquainted: “Such marvels of executive skill and power [as Liszt’s] I could never have imagined… Chopin carried you with him into a dreamland, in which you would have liked to have dwelled forever. Liszt was all sunshine and dazzling splendor, subjugating his hearers with a power that none could withstand.”

And this from Robert Schumann (similarly acquainted with the playing of Chopin): “And now the demon began to stir in [Liszt]. First he played with the public as if to test it, then gave it something more profound, until he had enmeshed every member of the audience with his art and did with them as he willed. Within a few seconds, tenderness, boldness, exquisiteness, wildness succeeded one another…”

Schumann might have been describing not only the executant but the actual notes of the A-major Piano Concerto, which Liszt nominally completed in 1848 but revised several times. It did not reach its present, final state until 1861. The first performance of record – of any version – took place in Weimar in 1857, with Liszt not as soloist, whose duties he entrusted to his pupil Hans von Bronsart, but as conductor.

The final version of the Concerto is in one continuous movement, with many fluctuations of tempo. Continuity and unity are cannily maintained by the seven-note recurring, swooning theme announced at the outset by the clarinets. Liszt takes his sweet time developing this exquisitely romantic theme, which gains in intensity as the piano assumes dominance, ending what might be called the first development with a fiery cadenza. The more animated contrasting theme is replaced by yet another, wholly new melodic notion before the “unifying” theme is resumed in a gorgeous cello solo, followed eventually by another thunderous piano cadenza and the martial Allegro deciso rendering of the theme, which is then subjected to a further series of transformations before the slam-bang conclusion.

Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to musical periodicals in the United States and Europe.