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Franz LISZT (1811 - 1886)
Sonata in b, S178 (1853) [28.54]
Lecture "Liszt and the Cross" with musical examples by Paul Barnes (34.40)
Victoria BOND (b.1945)

Potirion Sotiriu "The Cup of Salvation" (2000?) [12.02]
Dulces Voces: Laura Waldman, Kim Lauritsen, Holly A. Heffelbower, Curt Butler, L. Evan Rail, Benjamin C. Whitener.
Paul Barnes, piano
Recorded at Kimball Recital Hall, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA, September 1996 (Liszt) and May 2000 (Bond)
Notes in English. Small photos of performer, composer, ikon, chant notation.
LISZT DIGITAL LD 101 [75.44]


Comparison recordings:
Sonata in b, Clifford Curzon [AAD] Decca 452 306-2
Sonata in b, Vladimir Horowitz [restored Obert-Thorn] [ADD] Naxos 8.110606
Sonata in b, François-René Duchable Erato ECD 88091

The immediate point of the lecture is that Liszt considered his art an expression of his religious practice, that he considered the act of producing art to be a sacrament. Barnes quotes a Church Father as the source of this idea. As a non-Christian, I would naturally point out that this idea was well understood and put into practice by Egyptian philosopher-priests throughout Egyptian history beginning in 3000BCE, and Liszt might have known this from this source since he was in Paris when the explorations of Egypt by Napoleon’s expedition were being discussed in the salons.

But as Mr Barnes sensibly points out, in 34 minutes he can’t cover absolutely everything about the subject, so we move on to his next point: that the sonata in b is similar in its dramatic structure to other ecclesiastical works by Liszt, notably the Via Crucis, and that various themes in all such works were Liszt’s musical symbols for various religious events, most specifically the "cross theme". From the first three notes of a chant "Crux Fidelis...," the motif of a major second followed by a major third, these three notes, from their appearance in many of Liszt’s works, seem to Barnes to have represented for Liszt the vision of the cross appearing forward out of dark mists as a symbol of Christianity triumphant over barbarism and over Evil.

The idea that hammering piano chords represent nailing Jesus to the cross is not likely to win the Sherlock Holmes award for the most subtly ingenious deduction of 1996 or 2004. But these ideas taken together can be extremely useful to an artist, particularly one who shares Liszt’s religious convictions, when working up a performance of a major work like the Sonata in b, a work which presents many problems of interpretation. Almost exactly the same religious scenario can be seen in the Toccata movement from Widor’s Symphony #5; this was a help to me in selecting registrations for a performance the work on an organ unlike the one for which the work was written.

When Liszt’s "cross theme" appears in Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony as the beginning of the Big Tune in the last movement, or in Mayuzumi’s Nirvana Symphony, the possibilities of what this theme might represent to Jewish or Buddhist composers are left unexplored. Another theme from the Sonata in b appears in Glazunov’s Third Symphony; is it a Slavic folksong? A motif consisting of just two succeeding common musical intervals is statistically likely to have occurred somewhere in virtually every piece of music ever written. When we consider a motif consisting of three intervals, such as the B-A-C-H motif found in Bach and subsequent composers, or the D-S-C-H motif found in Shostakovich, the possibilities narrow enough to be more definitive.

And the real test of such an extra-musical interpretation, such as a similar one made by guitarist Paul Galbraith for the Bach Chaconne, is whether the result is an illuminated performance of the work. In Galbraith’s case, his religious sentiments interfere with his artistic ones, and his performance of the Chaconne movement is one of the weakest in his otherwise splendid recorded set of the related works.

Mr. Barnes is a fine pianist and gives us a performance of resounding conviction, so his analysis must be taken to have been a success. Jesus has never been nailed up with such ferocity, and the prayers are offered with melting sincerity. The other recordings listed above display incrementally higher levels of virtuosic brilliance, and alternative dramatic viewpoints, but no greater intensity.

From the photograph, the piano used appears to be a mid-size grand, and some of the lower register notes are consequently a little thin compared to other available performances on larger pianos. The recorded sound is quite clear, but the attempts to reduce the intrusive effects of coughs in the auditorium are only partially successful.

Mr. Barnes refers in his discussion to a religious ikon, which is duly reproduced in the program booklet — at postage stamp size. Mr. Barnes would have been better served if the ikon had been reproduced at full page so that details he referred to could actually be seen.

Potirion Sotiriu by Victoria Bond is an extended improvisatory piano interlude introduced and concluded by brief a capella performances of the chant upon which it is presumably based. It is brilliantly dramatic, suggestive of several musical styles, and is performed by Mr. Barnes with the same commitment as the Liszt. Sound is somewhat better and the background is dead quiet.

Paul Shoemaker

 


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