Bicentennial man Franz Liszt wrote less than two operas: the unfinished Sardanapale and the long-lost Don Sanche. It’s seemingly not much of an output, but the composer’s canon of over 70 lieder speaks to another side of the operatic Liszt.
With each major birth anniversary celebrated in the classical world—from Mozart’s 250th in 2006 to Philip Glass’s 75th next year—musical metropolises like New York become awash in many of the greatest hits and the occasional rare gem. The Hungarian rhapsodist is of no exception, from piano compendiums by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Lang Lang to a 34-disc collection released on the Deutsche Grammophon label. And though Liszt may have left a large legacy for his manipulation of the ivories (and helping to sire the First Lady of Bayreuth, Cosima Wagner—Liszt himself conducted the premiere of Lohengrin), his lieder are equally virtuosic and vital.
In his October recital at the Metropolitan Opera House, star German tenor Jonas Kaufmann started his program with a sextet of Liszt’s vocal works, set to the poetry of the 19th Century’s literary rock stars—many of whom among Liszt’s eclectic circle of friends—including Goethe, Heinrich Heine, Emil Kuh and Nikolaus Lenau. There was bitter consonance in Vergiftet sind meine Lieder (Poisoned Are My Songs), flowing into lush imagery of Im Rhein, im schönen Strome.
British tenor Ian Bostridge sang this same lied to great reception last night at Carnegie Hall, and the comparisons and contrasts between the two tenors are striking—both of a gold standard, albeit one more yellow (Bostridge) and the other rose (Kaufmann). But taken together, both reveal the balance in this Heine text, whose contrast of the towering sacredness of the Cologne Cathedral pitted against the narrator’s comparison of the pure Virgin Mary to his own beloved must have hit home for Liszt. No stranger to the pleasures of the flesh, the composer made an about-face toward the end of his life and took Holy Orders (the Met’s program notes for Kaufmann’s recital include the delicious quip from a contemporary that the composer had become “Mephistopheles disguised as an Abbé”).
There’s more complexity beyond the tried-and-true themes of love, be it reciprocated or not. Past the delicate clarity of Ihr Glocken von Marling, with its finale akin to a Hungarian pastry, are more complex works like the irresistible Die Drei Zigeuner, which treats each word in its roughly six-and-a-half minute piece as a potential aria—Kaufmann managed to cram in several curls and twists into the simple word of “Rauche” (“smoke”). It’s a raconteur’s dream, but it also features the other main component that makes Liszt’s lieder so worthy: the piano accompaniment.
In Die Drei Zigeuner, the piano becomes a full orchestra and varying soloists, from fiddle to accordion and chorus, lending individualized characteristics to each of the titular three gypsies. It deftly balances the contrasts of Budapest, a city that is full of plush cafes and chandeliers straight out of Belle-Époque Paris cozied alongside archways and turrets held over from the Turkish invasions. It’s a language that has more in common with the tongues of Western Asia than Eastern Europe, a culture that is more Uralic than Alpine (György Ligeti once said that if you went from Paris to Budapest you’d think you were in Moscow, but if you went from Moscow to Budapest you’d think you were in Paris).
Die Drei Zigeuner has been most recently recorded by Diana Damrau, whose Liszt recital album with pianist Helmut Deutsch should be required listening for anyone reading this blog. Liszt was famous for his heady excess, vividly captured here in Damrau’s glittering diamantine soprano and featuring 19 songs to provide plenty of material to mull over. While a piano-and-singer duo may seem austere compared to a fully-orchestrated opera, listening to this recording—or recent recitals such as Bostridge’s and Kaufmann’s—yields a bevy of riches that rival the opulence of any Wagnerian extravaganza. No one ever said it was easy living up to your father-in-law.