Can an iPad App Make You Love Liszt?

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One of the notable takeaways from WQXR's recent Classical Countdowns has been the complete absence of Franz Liszt's music from the annual ranking of 105 listener favorites.

Considered the greatest keyboard virtuoso the world had ever known – and the showiest – Liszt wrote two concertos, a large-scale sonata and countless other pieces. But for all of his attempts to thrill and seduce listeners, it can sometimes be difficult to see the forest for the trees in his scores. His writing is so virtuosic that clarity and structure in his music seems to lose out to razzle-dazzle.

A new iPad app aims to help us better understand and appreciate Liszt’s most famous work: the Sonata in B minor. It shows the English pianist Stephen Hough giving a complete performance, which users can view by toggling between three camera angles. There's an automatically synchronized score and a quirky, graphical note-by-note visualization of the piece as it is played.

While listening to the sonata, users have the option of getting Hough's commentary about the piece in either spoken or subtitled fashion (or both). It's delivered in somewhat technical terms (it helps to know terms like “recitative” and “cadenza”), but there's also plenty of discussion about the piece's performance challenges (sample passage: “Unless you have an absolutely enormous hand, it’s rather difficult to balance these chords in the right hand, because they have to be very soft and your hand is stretched at full limit." Duly noted).

The app is from Touch Press, a London-based company with a wide range of educational and music-related apps, including “The Orchestra,” which launched last year and features seven scores played by London's Philharmonia Orchestra, and "Beethoven's Ninth Symphony," which came out in May and allows users to compare different renditions of the symphony.

The Liszt app contains articles and program notes written by BBC music journalist Charlotte Gardner, each bolstered by video commentaries from Hough. Whether the app preaches to the choir or can attract Liszt converts remains to be seen, but it stands to reason that the technology can have considerable potential as a classical music education tool.

Weigh in: Have you found any great classical music apps? Would this one make you give Liszt a second try? Leave your comments below.