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Franz Liszt--The Last Word in Piano Playing

 
The last word in piano playing was—and still is— Liszt.
 
Although the standard in this art has grown and is continually growing better, the highest excellence of several decades ago has not been maintained, nor is it equalled by any of the present day piano virtuosos. Leaving Liszt, the marvelous sorcerer of the keyboard, entirely out of consideration, who now living could replace or approach either of that master’s disciples— the Titan Rubinstein, the elegant wizard Tausig, or the profound Von Bülow, in their respective spheres? Or that other contemporary, but unfortunately retiring and reticent Henselt, whose magnificence Clara Schumann found discouraging, and whose touch Liszt once said was “inimitable”?
 
liszt-lachmund.jpgTo reach the ne plus ultra in piano playing three great H’s—Head, Heart and Hand—are absolute requisites. This tri-unity was well represented in Von Bülow, the intellectual (head); Tausig, the marvel technician (hand); and Rubinstein, the emotional Titan (heart). And, mind you, it was Von Bülow—the intellectual—who said that the three taken together would not make a Liszt—and what a touching glimpse of Rubinstein’s modesty is gleaned from his words: “There is only one pianist—Liszt.”
 
The one who might have approached Lizst (sic) was Tausig. With a technic marvelously smooth and perfect, his nature was broadening emotionally, and his superb transcriptions gave greater hopes for his creative genius, when, at the youthful age of thirty- one, his career came to an end—a calamity to art.
 
And “who is there now?” we ask. Godowsky,   Hofmann, both astonishingly elegant. There is Rosenthal, who, musically speaking, rides an Arabian stallion with stunning audacity; or Paderewski, who seems more dependent on hard practice than do the others, and whose latter day evolution, emulative of Rubinstein, may hardly be regarded as a step onward from the impression he had made as a distinctively poetic interpreter.
 
D’Albert, by far the greatest piano genius, is the only one who could—had he willed—have stepped into the shoes of Rubinstein. Vividly I recall the ruddy- cheeked lad of eighteen years, as he appeared at the lessons in Weimar. Liszt, notwithstanding his small stature, delighted to address him as “D’Alberius Magnus” (the great). More than once after the lad had played, the master exclaimed enthusiastically: “Kleiner Loewe—ganz wie Tausig!” (Little lion—quite like Tausig!)
 
Of all his pupils Tausig was dearest to the master’s heart; had he not raised the boy, aside from his artistic development, having stood for all his expenses as for an own child?
 
Young D’Albert certainly did astonish us at several times with impromptu feats that could not have been prepared, and that caused amazement among us fellow- students, among whom were Rosenthal, Reisenauer, Sauer, Siloti—all his senior by several years—while the dear, grizzled master chuckled in glee and burst into his favorite “Peh!” an exclamation which, to those initiated in his vocabulary, meant more than words could convey. And let it be added that neither Rosenthal, Godowsky, Hofmann, Paderewski, Busoni, nor any other of the present day virtuosos even now at their mature age could repeat what the audacious D’Albert did then and there at the age of nineteen.
 
“Zu ochsen” (conservatory slang for digging in, or hard horse practice) was not in his impulsive nature, and so he leaned more and more to composition. The following incident will explain why he did not fulfill the promise of his youth. One morning I was practicing repeatedly with the right hand alone a difficult passage from the Rubinstein G major concerto, when, following a knock at the door, D’Albert entered. Hardly waiting for a “Good morning,” he burst out in his squawky falsetto-like voice: ”I cannot practice that way!” “How do you practice?” I challenged. “I do not practice at all—I just play—I just play,” was the ready response. To which I could only say: “Well, that may do for you, but not for ordinary mortals.”
 
Aside from young D’Albert’s ease and readiness in the most stunning technical difficulties, his playing bristled with fire, energy, spirit, self-conviction and, above all, courage—qualifications that brought back to Liszt his own youth, and were after his own heart. No wonder he exclaimed: “Kleiner Loewe—ganz wie Tausig!” The following recollections are taken at random from notes carefully made at each lesson during three years’ study with Liszt at Weimar.
 
First among the Meister’s axioms was: “Courage— above all, courage.” Indeed, how can one imagine an Hungarian rhapsody, one of the great etudes, or his E flat concerto played well without this word as a foregone conviction?
 
Another characteristic maxim, and one which he often urged: “Do not conceive expression narrowly within one measure, but covering phrases of two or more measures, and it will be on broader lines”—an admonition which no doubt had much to do in making D’Albert the greatest Beethoven interpreter now living.
 
What charmed, if not astounded, me most of all in Liszt’s playing was his lucid phrasing; he seemed to present to you emotional content as if on a server, entirely oblivious as to the technical means. Nothing could eradicate from my memory the inimitable manner in which he did this one afternoon at our own home, when he played Chopin’s arpeggio etude in A flat, and the harp-like etude in E flat. What a revelation in phrasing it was! The like of which I have never again heard from any pianist.
 
When a student rushed from one section to another without the desired break (sometimes called   Kusstpause), the Master remarked: “No, do not rush headlong here; hesitate a bit, as if to glance back over the road you have come, and to determine in which direction you will go.” Having elbowed the pupil from the chair, the Master played the piece—and lo, what a new forcefulness there was in its meaning!
 
When the player hesitated at some difficult group, he cried: “That is too much like a visitor stopping to look at the house-number before entering.”
 
To a young lady whose left hand seemed much at odds with her right, he patiently said: “You seem to be a Christian pianist—you do not let your left hand know what the right doeth.”
 
He abhorred the amateur arpeggio-preludes sometimes affected by shallow but over-confident players. Such efforts were quickly cut short by a sarcastic remark about “piano tuner’s preludes.”
 
Ever devout when it came to a Beethoven sonata, his anger was quickly aroused when anyone disregarded the simple signs of expression. At a repetition of such an offense the book was peremptorily closed, while the Master, with eyebrows contracted in anger, shouted: “To observe the dead letter is the least one can do in playing Beethoven.”
 
Liszt’s Heroic Nature
There was much of the heroic in Liszt’s nature. In fact, in almost every one of his compositions you find a climactic outburst at which one might exclaim: “See, the conquering hero comes!” Once, when a young man was interpreting a typical melody of this sort in a rather maidenish manner, the Master cried: “Why, that is one of those melodies, each—note—of—which should be fairly rammed into the ears of the listener.” And with this he illustrated the idea with his extended thumb against the young man’s ear. Turning to us, he added, sotto voce: “And really one ought to give the listener a kick with each note to make sure he will feel its significance;” then, with a shrug, and as if parenthetically to himself, “but one cannot do that.”
 
As to a person’s position at the piano, he was always particular. “Sit upright. Look up and away from the ivory, and you will play with greater inspiration.”
 
“Sit as if you were to be shaved—with the head well up,” he admonished a young man.
 
To a young lady: “A pianist should sit like a well- bred society dame, with a quiet air of superiority— then she can phrase better.”
 
To a young lady who persistently eyed the keys he said: “Sit as if you were having your photograph taken,” and when this went unheeded he gave her several gentle but determined raps on the forehead, adding with feigned severity: “This is no or-tho-pe-dic institute!”
 
Finally, she held her head back and, having gained his point, he muttered a satisfied “So!” and resumed his promenade about the room.
 
“Preserve rhythmic clearness,” was another of his precepts.
 
To a young lady who blurred the rhythm in his Gnomenreigen he said: “There! You are mixing salad again.” To another, who had played similar passages devoid of rhythm or phrasing: “That is too much as if you were beating an omelet.”
 
An exhibition of sentimentality invariably invoked his sarcasm. A young Swiss lady, who had been very successful with Chopin’s Spinato-Polonaise at a former lesson, came to grief with Beethoven’s Theme and Variations in C minor. She started the sturdy theme in a sentimental manner, and as she proceeded this grew from bad to worse. I expected an outburst of anger, but the Master was in a philosophical mood, and took it merely as a joke. Audibly he soliloquized: “Aha! A sentimental lover’s proposal.” Then a moment later: “Now we have a funeral.” At the next exhibition of dolefulness: “Here we see the hearse.” Finally, in distress he left the piano, exclaiming: “Gracious! Now the sexton himself is being buried.”
 
After some moments of silence, during which he had been gazing out of the open window with a far-off look over the ducal park, he turned to a small group, of which I happened to be one, and with more earnestness added:
 
“Girls do not play seriously until they have had seven love affairs—but unhappy ones,” he amended, arching his shaggy eyebrows.

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