Steinway & Sons is a piano company, of course, but it is also a record label. Among its offerings is Liszt: Opera and Song for Solo Piano. The pianist is Gábor Farkas, a Hungarian, like Liszt.
“Gábor” is his first name, and “Farkas” is his last name. In Hungary, they put their names in the other order (as they do in Japan). So, in Hungary, the pianist is known as “Farkas Gábor.” As an American, I’m used to “Gabor” as a last name, not a first name: I grew up with Eva and Zsa Zsa, after all. (They didn’t live in my house, but still . . .)
Liszt was one of the greatest pianists of his time, a legend even then. When was then? Liszt lived in the heart of the nineteenth century: 1811 to 1886. He wrote many original compositions, you might say. He also wrote many transcriptions, paraphrases, and fantasies.
Transcriptions are arrangements of pieces for one instrument, or instruments, for another instrument, or instruments. You can also transcribe songs (and consider the voice an instrument). Liszt transcribed plenty of them, for piano. Probably his two most famous song transcriptions are of “Widmung,” the Schumann song, and “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” Schubert’s. They are frequently used as encores. Yuja Wang loves to play “Gretchen.” “Widmung” is on Gábor Farkas’s album.
Paraphrases and fantasies? These are treatments of other people’s music—not strict transcriptions, but looser, freer treatments. Usually, they have the character of improvisation. Liszt went to town on many operas—he never wrote one of his own, except for an adolescent effort—including Aida, the Verdi hit.
This is included on the Farkas album. It is a beautiful and moving piece of music. What Liszt does with the interval that opens “O terra, addio,” the love-death duet, is inspired.
In his transcriptions, paraphrases, and fantasies, Liszt shows a wonderful sense of the piano and its uses. He knows the instrument like the back of his hand (both of them). He knows how to exploit the instrument, to the full. I sometimes find his use of the tremolo grating—I think of vaudeville, or of cartoon music—but that is a matter of taste.
Among the songs that Farkas plays, transcribed by Liszt, are two by Chopin. I have a confession: I have never really liked Chopin’s songs. He is a great songwriter in his piano music (his nocturnes, sonatas, preludes, and so on). But his song songs? I have been disappointed by them. Several years ago, I brought up this issue with Piotr Beczała, the famed Polish tenor. I wish I could remember precisely what he said. I think it boiled down to—you have to be Polish.
In any event, the two songs in question work very well from Farkas, and Liszt. I should give Chopin’s songs at large another try. Farkas also plays three songs by Schumann, Clara Schumann. They are really lovely pieces, songs without words (to borrow Mendelssohn’s designation).
The album ends with Liszt’s solo-piano transcription of his own Totentanz, which is for piano and orchestra. The piano part is hard enough in the original. But when the piano has to do all the work?
Fortunately, Gábor Farkas has the requisite technique. You cannot sit down with Liszt without it. Those without chops, need not apply. But Farkas is also a smart and sensitive musician. What’s more, he obviously appreciates this music, loves it, which makes a great difference in the result. Just as there is no sense trying this music if you don’t have the technique, there’s no sense trying it if you lack the appreciation, or love.
Liszt is guilty of some bombast, I think it’s safe to say. And sometimes he writes as though paid by the note. A pianist must work with these characteristics, and Farkas does. A pianist must “buy in” to Liszt, to use a modern expression. Farkas strikes me as a natural Liszt pianist.
He certainly has the training. He attended the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. His mentors were Tamás Vásáry and Zoltán Kocsis, two greats. Gábor Farkas, or Farkas Gábor, represents a tradition that stretches back generations, and I hope it will stretch onward for many more . . .