Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, S178 – Work No. 68 in our collection

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.

Franz Liszt

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.

Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, S178 was completed in 1853 and published in 1854 with a dedication to Robert Schumann. Despite initial adverse criticism, the piece has subsequently become established as a pinnacle of Liszt’s repertoire and can be frequently heard in concert halls throughout the world. Despite its considerable technical difficulties, there are over 100 recordings of the piece that have appeared on CD.

The sonata unfolds in little more than 30 minutes of unbroken music. While its four distinct movements are rolled into one, the entire work is encompassed within the traditional Classical sonata scheme— exposition, development, and recapitulation.  Thus Liszt has effectively composed a sonata within a sonata, which is part of the work’s uniqueness.

In composing this sonata, Liszt was very economical with his thematic material. The very first page contains the three motivic ideas that provide the content, transformed throughout, for nearly all the music that follows. The centerpiece of the sonata is the slow movement, an Andante sostenuto of truly haunting beauty. The piece ends with one last titanic climax before a dramatic silence ushers in the twilit epilogue— the andante sostenuto melody reappears to serene and touching effect bringing this tour de force to a perfect close.

We have chosen to add to our collection a truly Olympian performance by the outstanding Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman dating back to 1990. It is available in a 2-CD set, from Deutsche Grammophon, that also includes exceptionally good performances of Liszt’s two piano concertos (with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa).

View the other works in our collection.