During my teenage years I was rather obsessed with Romanticism and the music of Frédéric Chopin in particular. My tastes have broadened since then, but I’m still very fond of Chopin and piano music in particular, so I decided dive into the piano works of two other Romantic composers; Franz Schubert and Franz Liszt.
Schubert is universally beautiful, but I’m still not sure about Liszt. Most of the work I’ve heard from him comes across as technically complex, but rather cold. Liszt was a piano virtuoso in his days, which accounts for the technical complexity of his works, but so was Chopin. It’s as if Liszt treats the piano as a one-man, one-instrument orchestra, while Chopin is attempting to let the piano sing. It’s a bit hard to explain in words.
Another problem I have with Liszt are the various interpretations by pianists. A popular consensus seems to be that all of his music should be played forte and if possible fortissimo. Now, it could be that they’re just following the original annotations by Liszt, but so much emotion is getting lost by such interpretations. It’s like listening to variations on György Ligeti’s thirteenth étude, “L’escalier du diable” (wonderful music by the way), which has extreme dynamics — fffffff near the end of the piece.
Consider the Waltz in D flat major, Op. 64, No. 1, popularly known as the “Minute Waltz”, by Chopin. This particular piece of music has been raped to death by pianists who frantically try to squeeze all of the notes of the waltz in 1 minute of playing time — which is the amount the nickname and popular myth dictates. Sure, it’s a fast waltz, but it wasn’t at all intended to be played within the constraints of one minute. It’s just as annoying as the musicians who overuse the tempo rubato, just because they’re playing music by Chopin. So much is lost in those interpretations.
It could be that Liszt just isn’t my cup of tea. I don’t care much about Rachmaninoff either, who suffers from the same cold approach to writing for the piano. But I’m going to listen to some more music of him to see if my opinion changes. I’ve got some recordings by Leslie Howard which are a definite improvement over Sviatoslav Richter*, I must say.
*= I know. He’s one the greatest pianists of the 20th century. But still.