Franz Liszt (22.10.1811 – 31.07.1886) was a prolific 19th-century Hungarian composer and a highly virtuosic pianist. He is best known for his piano music, but he also wrote for orchestra, and for other ensembles, virtually always including a piano. His talents at the keyboard meant that many of his piano works are marked by their difficulty. He was important in the development of new forms such as the Tone Poem and the device called metamorphosis in which the ‘story’ of a character or an idea is developed by the subtle alteration of a single representative musical idea.
Liszt’s greatest works are those written for solo piano and include the Piano Sonata in B minor, S178 and his Années de pèlerinage. He also wrote two piano concertos that have proved very popular both in concert and on recordings; there being around 250 recordings of his Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, S124.
The genesis of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major dates to 1830, when the composer sketched out the main theme in a notebook and the final version is dated 1849. The concerto consists of four movements and lasts approximately 20 minutes. It was first performed in Weimar on February 17, 1855, with Liszt playing the piano and Hector Berlioz conducting. After the premiere, Liszt made a number of revisions and the final version of the work dates from 1856. It is a technically demanding concerto that welds piano and orchestra together in a dramatic series of meditations on a theme of which Liszt enigmatically declared ‘None of you understands!’
We have chosen a version performed by Krystian Zimerman with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa. This 1988 release from Deutsche Grammophon also includes Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, S125 and his Totentanz, S126 for piano & orchestra.
It is hard to imagine what can be bettered in these recordings. Not only does the sound have a depth, clarity and imposingly spacious feeling, but also the pianos used are perfectly tuned to my ear at least. The orchestra are supportive, attentive and always there to follow and lead the ideas of Krystian Zimerman. Ozawa, who I consider to be a much underrated accompanist, is a true partner in the performance and he is not over awed by the strength of the pianist with whom he is collaborating.