Among the usual interesting mix of music in the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s short winter festival which opened last night (Jan. 27) at Benaroya’s small hall is a concentration on Liszt — we are just into the two hundredth anniversary of his birth — and Brahms.
The main Brahms focus is in this evening’s concerts: the preliminary concert at 6.30 is of his solo piano music and the fuller concert at 7.30 gives all three of his piano trios. The Liszt theme is concentrated in the preliminary concerts when pianist Adam Neiman is playing in full the set of 12 "Transcendental Studies." The first of his three recitals was last night at the festival’s opening.
These Liszt pieces are ferociously difficult to play. Very few pianists tackle them, and it is rare to hear them all in sequence. It is not just that many pianists lack the necessary technique. The music is not to everyone’s taste and was never really admitted to the higher aesthetic canon dominated by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and the more refined romantics such as Schumann and Chopin.
Of Liszt’s piano works, only the B minor sonata, the Dante sonata, and the austere late pieces were regarded as serious. The more obviously virtuosic pieces were treated as somewhat vulgar exhibitionism. “Flashy” was the word you used to hear, and for me it took a performance in London some 30 years ago by the Russian pianist Lazar Berman to reveal the fascinating and subtle quality of the music and its astonishing exploration of the capabilities of the modern grand piano which was still in Liszt’s younger years a relatively new invention.
Adam Neiman addressed this neglect in an introductory talk to the audience. He emphasised the emotional and dramatic range and quality of the music with links to the nineteenth century culture from which it sprang and to Liszt’s own complex life.
He then played the first five pieces in the sequence with all the confident virtuosity they require — his double chromatic octaves in Mazeppa were breathtaking — and a passionate involvement in their drama which he fully communicated to an obviously fascinated audience. The festival could not have made a more powerful start.