The opening of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 was once among the most famous themes in classical piano music, popularized in cartoons and Hollywood movies through the 20th century to a degree perhaps only matched by Chopin’s A-Flat Polonaise and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. As a work representative of a key period in musical history and of piano literature, it harkens back to an era of particular interest to lovers of old piano recordings.
Did Liszt himself make a recording? He lived long enough to do so — cylinder recordings had existed for a few years prior to his death in 1886 — but there is no written evidence to indicate that the pianist-composer ever produced one, and nothing has been found. Fortunately, however, many of his students left us a number of recordings, although some of his most celebrated disciples did not. While some of these pianists were quite old when they made their discs, there is still much we can learn and appreciate from what they produced.
These pianists’ lives spanned a huge change in global culture and artistic development — including the evolution of recording technology — which makes these audio testimonials truly fascinating. Especially worth noting, as with the artists coached by Brahms and the pupils of Leschetizky, is that their playing is not identical despite having trained with the same pianist-composer; the intention at the time was not to create a monochromatic approach to music-making (something our current musical culture would do well to recognize and emulate). Let’s explore three of these amazing Liszt pupils and their performances.
Moriz Rosenthal was a Polish pianist born in 1862 who died in 1946. He studied with several legends — Moscheles, Joseffy, Tausig, and Mikuli (a Chopin student) — before training with Liszt. He was a firebrand in his youth and no longer at his most volcanic when he began recording in the late 1920s, but in some of his recordings, there are still glimmers of his intensity and always an abundance of passion, panache, and personality.
His 1930 recording of the master’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 is a fascinating one, with his own cadenza and some fascinating additions. It is worth noting that Liszt told his students that where there are trills or other repeated patterns in his compositions, it was up to the discretion of the performer how long to play them — it didn’t have to be for the exact time indicated in the score (ironically revealing that those following the text strictly are not doing what the composer wanted). We notice this with long trills and other extended passagework in Rosenthal’s disc, and there are other individual touches like rolled chords and added octaves. (It is worth noting that a broadcast recording of the pianist in this work from a year earlier — not on YouTube but available on CD here — is radically different, with other extended passages and an even more volcanic temperament.)
Rosenthal was past his fiery peak by the time he began making recordings, and some of his later ones, in particular, do not do him justice. However, one is quite phenomenal: a performance of the Larghetto from Chopin’s E Minor Piano Concerto from a 1937 broadcast celebrating his 75th birthday. He plays with a truly gorgeous sonority, his melodic line beautifully crafted and soaring above his attentively voiced accompaniment in the left hand — and what wonderful rubato and nuancing! Despite some crackle from the old broadcast discs, the fidelity of the piano tone is remarkable, and the playing by this great artist is stupendous.
Emil von Sauer was a German composer and pianist who, like Rosenthal, was born in 1862, and who lived a slightly shorter life, dying in 1942. He was referred to by fellow Liszt pupil Martin Krause (Claudio Arrau’s teacher) as “the legitimate heir of Liszt; he has more of his charm and geniality than any other Liszt pupil.”
We can indeed hear his charm and elegance in his few hours of recordings, which significantly include both Piano Concertos, which the pianist set down in 1938 when he was 76 years old. His spaciously paced and refined performances are so distinctive and commanding that the legendary Dinu Lipatti completely reframed his conception of the works after hearing Sauer play them in concert in Paris prior to the recording sessions.
One wouldn’t expect a pianist at that advanced age to deliver the most blazing performances on record, but the grand nobility and style of his readings are remarkable, and the testimonial that his playing was perhaps closest to Liszt’s makes these recordings particularly intriguing. Here is his account of the A Major Piano Concerto:
There is a serious misconception that lyrical works of the 19th century should be played at a slow tempo to bring out their meaning, but the evidence indicates that this was not the approach at the time these works were written. While it can be argued that time limits on old records required performers to play a bit more quickly (this has been known to be the case at times), we also know that pianists from that era aimed to play at a singable tempo, ensuring that each melodic phrase could be sung in a single breath, something supported by the findings of Liszt scholars.
Such tempos reveal a completely different character in the music, as evidenced in Sauer’s 1938 recording of Liszt’s Consolation No. 3. Fellow Liszt pupil Lina Ramann studied the six Consolations with the master himself and noted a similar metronome marking to what we hear in Sauer’s playing. Emotion is highlighted not by stretching out the tempo but rather through dynamic and tonal adjustments while maintaining the clear shaping of the melodic line. Also fascinating in this performance is a different chord progression towards the end of the work:
Frederic Lamond was the second-to-last surviving Liszt pupil, born in 1868 and dying in early 1948 (a few months before his Portuguese colleague José Vianna da Motta). Lamond was praised not just as an exponent of the Liszt tradition but was also widely celebrated as a Beethoven interpreter — it was rumored that he had been considered for the first complete recording of Beethoven Sonatas, which, as we found out in an earlier post, was made by Artur Schnabel. Lamond’s readings of these works are indeed remarkable, and while his later accounts are at times less precise, the grandeur of mood and originality of conception are fascinating.
Quite recently, a 1937 broadcast recording of the pianist playing Liszt’s Second Concerto live in Amsterdam was located and issued. The 69-year-old pianist, like Sauer at 76, plays with nobility, expansiveness of phrasing, and great beauty of tone:
Also, like Sauer in the Consolation No. 3, Lamond plays Liszt’s famous Liebestraum No. 3 at a singable tempo that might sound brisk to our ears but which seems natural when one tries singing the melodic line. Despite the age of the recording, we can appreciate his beautiful singing tone and balance of primary and secondary lines, with wonderful timing.
While the playing of these three Liszt pupils cannot reveal the exact manner in which the master himself would have played, it is fascinating to consider that we are able to listen to the playing of artists born over 150 years ago who studied with the legendary composer. What incredibly insightful and important audio documents for all pianists and music lovers!