Performance Sunday, April 29, 2012 | 3 PM

Garrick Ohlsson

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Garrick Ohlsson has graciously agreed to replace Maurizio Pollini, who unfortunately must cancel his appearance due to illness.

Garrick Ohlsson has spent this season celebrating the bicentennial of Franz Liszt's birth by focusing his artistry on the composer’s indelible music. After a performance of Liszt’s music, The New York Times praised this gifted pianist for "the passion and force of his interpretation, enhanced by his clear voicing of inner lines and the dramatic juxtaposition of contrasting elements … Mr. Ohlsson’s gifts as a storyteller held the audience spellbound.”
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The Program

Fantasy and Fugue for Organ in G Minor, BWV 542; transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt, S. 463

Had Liszt done nothing more than leave piano transcriptions of other composer's works, his catalogue would still be considerable. In addition to his enormous output of original compositions, he transcribed several hundred compositions by his contemporaries and predecessors—Bach's Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor in 1869—long after he had abandoned his career as a touring virtuoso.

In scope, grandeur, and emotional impact, this is one of Bach's towering creations for keyboard, reaching for the skies like the spires of a great cathedral. The Fantasy is rich in harmonic adventures and textural development. Grinding dissonances, startling suspensions, and ornate filigree abound. Two main ideas—recitative-like writing (full of flamboyant runs and flourishes) and a more somber, polyphonic subject—twice alternate and eventually merge. The Fugue is a masterpiece of contrapuntal dexterity, often referred to as the "Great" to distinguish is from another well-known Bach Fugue in G Minor, "Little."

—Robert Markow

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Fantasy and Fugue for Organ on "Ad nos, ad salutarem undam" (after Giacomo Meyerbeer), S. 259; transcribed for piano by Ferruccio Busoni

The Fantasy and Fugue on "Ad nos, ad salutarem undam" is almost certainly the least-known and least-performed work on Garrick Ohlsson's recital. It is also by far the longest, the most expansive, and the most challenging for the listener. In performance, it lasts over half an hour, its scope is almost operatic, the dynamics run the full gamut, its array of sonorities is vast, it ranges in mood from beatific serenity to frenzied distress, and its harmonic language is so advanced that even Wagner's work up to that time seems tame by comparison.

Liszt's enormous catalogue does not include much for organ, but he did leave three substantial works for this instrument (plus a few smaller pieces). The Fantasy and Fugue on "Ad nos, ad salutarem undam" is the first of these larger works, composed in early 1850 after Liszt had attended the premiere of Giacomo Meyerbeer's opera Le prophète in Paris the previous year. From the opera's first act, Liszt took the chorale sung by three Anabaptists and fashioned a massive composition for organ. So accomplished is the writing that one can scarcely believe it was his first work for the instrument. "With 'Ad nos,'" writes Liszt scholar Alan Walker, "Liszt led the organ out of the church and into the concert hall."

In 1897, Ferruccio Busoni, a composer and piano virtuoso on the order of Liszt himself, transcribed the work for pianoa formidable undertaking inasmuch as the organ writing evokes various orchestral instruments (flutes, oboes, trumpets, and so on) as well as including a significant role for the pedals (which does not transcribe easily to the piano).

The entire work is based on a single theme that undergoes a great variety of thematic transformations, metrical alterations, and fragmentations. The basic material is presented within the first 30 bars. This is followed by a series of episodes, some quietly meditative, others stridently assertive. One even evokes a fanfare of trumpets. Despite the title, which suggests a two-part structure, the work is actually divided into three equal parts. A central adagio sectionquiet throughoutconsists of six variations on the chorale theme. Suddenly, as if roused from slumber, the writing becomes vociferously aggressive. A moment later, the fugal section begins, which actually consists of two fugues in succession, each of whose subjects is derived from the ever-present chorale theme. A coda brings the composition to a grandiose conclusion.

—Robert Markow

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

"Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude" from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S. 173

Liszt wrote his first truly original music when he was 23. One piano piece from this year (1834) was called Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, a title he borrowed from a collection of poetry by Alphonse de Lamartine. Years later, between 1848 and 1853, Liszt wrote an entire series of 10 piano pieces under the same rubric, into which the piece from 1834 was incorporated and renamed "Pensée des morts." The best-known from this set remains "Funérailles," followed closely by "Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude," which in the opinion of many, is the finest of the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses.

Liszt prefaced the score with these words from Lamartine: "Whence comes, O God, this peace that overwhelms me? Whence comes this faith with which my heart overflows?" A simple, hymn-like theme in F-sharp major glides slowly upward in the left hand, while the right hand accompanies with a gentle undulation that might well evoke the lambent light of votive candles in a small, private chapel. "Is there another piano piece with such hypnotic sweetness of sound?" asks pianist Alfred Brendel. "A whole orchestra of arpeggiating harps puts the listener into a state of pentatonic intoxication."

Robert Markow

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Étude No. 5, "Feux follets," from Études d'exécution transcendante, S. 139

In 1826, when he was all of 15 years old, Liszt announced with bravado characteristic of the age that he was embarking on a monumental project to write a compendium of 48 exercises in all the major and minor keys (two complete sets, as Bach had done in his Well-Tempered Clavier). Only 12 were written. The inspiration came from Liszt's piano teacher, Carl Czerny, whose own piano studies are famous (or infamous, as the case may be) today mostly for their musical aridity. Liszt's studies were published in Marseilles in 1827 and withdrawn three years later. They were quite possibly the first etudes written with a view towards the concert stage rather than the practice studio. (Chopin did not embark on his own etudes until 1829. When his Op. 10 set was published in 1833, it was dedicated to Liszt, and the later Op. 25 set was dedicated to Liszt's lover Marie d'Agoult.)

In 1837, Liszt launched another grand scheme based on the earlier studies. Again, only 12 were written. These were published in 1839. Then they were once again reworked into still a third version in 1851, the version we know best today under Liszt's new title of Études d'exécution transcendante. Only for this final version did Liszt invent the individual titles by which we now know them.

An etude is essentially a study piece, a work designed to develop some aspect of technical or musical training. But in the hands of Chopin, Rachmaninoff, or Liszt, etudes can transcend their utilitarian function to become music of inventive genius and musical poetry as well. In "Feux follets" ("Will-o'-the-wisp"), we find an evocation of secret fairy rites and mysterious murmurings portrayed through an abundance of delicate passage work, arabesques, and an almost uninterrupted quiet dynamic.

Robert Markow

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Valse oubliée, S. 215, No. 1

Liszt scholar Alan Walker divides the piano pieces of the composer's last years into three categories: the music of retrospection, the music of despair, and the music of death. Valse oubliée No. 1 is one of four "forgotten waltzes" belonging to the first category, which also includes a Polka oubliée and a Romance oubliée. Valse oubliée No. 1 is the only one of the four heard with any frequency today (it was a Horowitz specialty); it is also probably the best known of all Liszt's late piano pieces. This three-minute miniature is characterized by a delicate whimsy, airy grace, and just a touch of nostalgia.

Robert Markow

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Nuages gris, S. 199

Nuages gris is another miniature from Liszt's late period. It would fit into Walker's category of the music of despair. Composed in 1881, five years before Liszt's death, it reveals a man emotionally light years apart from the thundering virtuoso of earlier times. Nuages gris (Gray Clouds) is a desolate piece of sparse textures, impressionistic effects, unresolved chords, and elusive harmony.

Robert Markow

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke), S. 514

Liszt "feared God, but he loved the Devil," observed pianist Louis Kentner. The veracity of this claim is firmly established in the magnificent music Liszt wrote for Mephistopheles in his Mephisto Waltz No. 1, which in its original orchestral form (circa 1860) was called Dance at the Village Inn. As a pianistic tour de force, it is understandably one of Liszt's most popular works. After the devil tunes his fiddle in the introduction, the listener is plunged into a world of the macabre and the diabolical. The fantastical waltz tune would hardly find a place in any 19th-century salon or dance hall. As it reels on, it passes through various transformations in which it appears by turns brilliant, erotic, flirtatious, yearning, and diabolical.

Robert Markow

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This performance is part of Great Artists II.

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