The celestial tones of a brilliant music full of pride

14. November 2017

„My favourite piece is always the one I am currently playing” – we have asked pianists István Gulyás, Yohei Wakioka and Jenő Jandó to talk about their experiences with Liszt’s music. In the interview, the musicians evoked the figure, the music and the world of the eponymous founder of the Liszt Academy.

Do you have a favourite Liszt-composition, and if so, which one is that? 

István Gulyás: My favourites piece is generally the one I am currently playing, but I have same especially cherished compositions: the Piano Sonata in B minor, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (God’s blessing in solitude in English), a wonderful piece, which one can’t mention without being moved, but I could also list Pensée des morts (In memory of the dead). I’m very fond of the entire cycle Années de pèlerinage. Most of it is part of my repertoire; only a few pieces are missing. This is how the idea occurred to me to play the entire cycle in three sets, the second of which was performed on this year’s Liszt Memorial Day. When I was a student of the Liszt Academy, I enjoyed playing these pieces for their virtuosity, but now, being perhaps somewhat wiser, I am especially touched by their closeness to nature and their impact on human nature.

 

István Gulyás. Photo: Katalin Avar

 

Yohei Wakioka: My very favourite Liszt-work is the Piano Sonata in B minor, as this piece reflects the incredibly dramatic strife between men, Satan and God. Having said that, however, I find all of Liszt’s composition very beautiful, profound and sacred.

Jenő Jandó: The most perfect Liszt-composition is the Piano Sonata in B minor, but I could also claim that I like best whatever I focus on currently. I’m also keen on the Mephisto Waltz, one of Liszt’s excellent pieces, but the Sonata in B minor is absolutely outstanding in its perfection. However, Liszt has quite a few works with too many notes to my taste, less would have been more, but in the Sonata in B minor there is not a single redundant tone.

How is it different to play Liszt than other composers?

IG: The first thought that comes to my mind is imagination.  „Absolute” compositions tend to form the majority of other oeuvres. This means that they are not bound to any additional notion, there is no programme behind them. Liszt, however, uses literary texts, poems, paintings which are evoked by the means of music. Like Wagner’s idea Gesamtkunstwerk, music becomes a universal art for with the focus on the piano. Liszt’s music is able to make us see everything such that we practically become visionaries. This is what makes him extraordinary.

YW: Nearly all of Liszt’s compositions represent a serious technical challenge to the performer, but these technical difficulties reflect his singular brilliant music so full of pride. What gives me real joy with Liszt is that I am actually capable of playing his music.

JJ: I would say that in Liszt’s piano compositions there is a certain liberty present, which may never debase itself to libertine laxness. Liszt’s music always has a song-like quality, which may never become mechanical. This song-like property – which was rooted in the composer’s personality - makes it unique. We must play it such that we can rightly claim to be fully in the presence of Liszt’s music.

What is your favourite memory connected to the Liszt Memorial Museum or to the Chamber Hall of the Old Academy of Music?

IG: My most recent memory is my recital given in the Chamber Hall. I was very glad that silence prevailed in the audience, which means that they were focussing and understood what was going on. This is crucial feedback for a musician. I believe that just by entering the Old Academy of Music in Vörösmarty Street and walking on its corridors, we can feel that Liszt did leave his mark there, we can virtually see his footprints and sense his presence.  Beyond the joy of the concerts, it also means a lot to me that whenever I visit the museum, I can learn something new about Liszt from the knowledgeable staff, who passionately love him.  

YW: Naturally, my most exquisite memories are my piano recitals that were held here, but neither can I forget about the exhilaration that I was feeling when I had the opportunity to practise on Liszt’s very own concert piano or when I could be physically close to his objects and instruments.

JJ: Some years ago, a label was released which recorded me playing the instruments that are on display in the Liszt Memorial Museum. This is one of my dear memories. I was really fond of these instruments, although prior to the recording I had to become familiar with them, as we are talking about antique objects. The glass-piano came closest to my heart, it is still an uplifting memory that I could perform Liszt’s music on it. It has a celestial sound.  I am of course not only keen on Liszt’s pianos but also on the spirit of the place, as Liszt himself used to live and teach here.

 

Jenő Jandó. Photo: Anna Peternák

 

Is it possible to resemble the great virtuoso in any sense?

GI: With regards to the Sonnets of Petrarch, I wish I could show so many facets of love as he could. I would also love to present these shades so richly as he did, to evoke emotions with tones and to be able to put these shades into words with utmost accuracy and precision while teaching my student.

YW: I would love to be similar to Franz Liszt in the ability of perfect sight-reading. 

JJ: It is impossible to resemble him, but at least, I strive to get to the spirit of his compositions as close as possible. I am trying to be near him, as through his works one can become enormously enriched.

If the Maestro was sitting here with us, what would you want to ask him?

IG: If I could have but one question, this one question would apply to the Sonata in B minor? I would ask Liszt to reveal that miraculous key, whisper me the secret of the piece so that I can quote Karinthy and say: „I must not tell to anyone, so, tell it I will to everyone.” I have been playing and teaching this work, but my problem is that no matter whose opinion or performance I hear, it is always very convincing and authentic in fragments, but not as a whole. I feel somehow urged to solve the riddle. My professor, Mihály Bächer, who had a great impact on me, never talked to me of the actual meaning of the Sonata. Indeed, it is Faust-like, satanic, there is eternal damnation and ascension into heaven in it. Nonetheless, we cannot be sure whether it has an actual plot; although it is no programme-music but an instrumental piece, which has no explicit story-line. This is what I would definitely ask Liszt. Word has it that once Liszt was playing the Sonata in B minor among his friends, and Wagner was there too. At the end of performance, he went up to Liszt, enthusiastically congratulated him on the composition and asked him the following question: It is a Faust sonata, isn’t it? But Liszt was only smiling mysteriously and didn’t say a word.

YW: I would certainly choose to ask the maestro what a musician needs most, has to learn and do to become a real artist?  

JJ: I wouldn’t ask Liszt any question but would point at the piano and would ask him to play me something.  Although I could ask him about the tempo, for example, but what for? I’m sure he never played anything twice the same way. If he was sitting here with us, I would be watching and listening to him attentively from the corner of the room to observe how he makes tones sound, to what extent he feels self-conscious and what sounds he would get from the piano in this small room.

 

 Yohei Wakioka.

 

What do you think makes Liszt a modern composer?

IG: There are immense style differences between Liszt’s early, mature and late works that they could almost have been composed by different people. Perhaps his modernity lies in his constant change. Certain composers speak ad vary the same musical language with great gift during their entire career, but Liszt walked a long way and was always capable of renewing himself. He came up with ideas that yielded completely new and separate styles, for example impressionism. But I could also mention the Bagatelle without tonality, in which Liszt arrived at atonality, an entirely 20th century notion.

YW: I see Liszt as an artist who was in the quest of the truths of life, such as love, sin, desire or redemption. These factors shape the human psyche and invariably have an impact on us and still inspire us through Liszt’s marvellous music.

JJ: Liszt went through various periods of creativity, and he could renew himself in each one of these. As an example, I could mention his Hungarian Historical Portraits - which was featured the memorial concert too -  as a modern piece being much before its time.  

Patrícia Keszler