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Liszt: Surmounting The Ultimate Piano Sonata

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In this vast, single-movement composition, Franz Liszt achieved a synthesis of symphonic and sonata forms that has never been surpassed for its cogency, scope and imagination. He managed this in a work that demands the utmost from the performer in musical as well as technical terms, a work that in the best of accounts can spark a powerful emotional experience in the listener.

It is sometimes difficult to see the forest for the trees in this piece. The writing is so virtuosic that the long-range relationship of motives and harmonic regions to an overall plan tends to be indistinguishable. But the plan is there, and it is superbly well executed.

On one level, the work is a single-movement sonata lasting half an hour, with an exposition in three broad key areas: a development, a recapitulation and a coda. But it can also be perceived as a four-movement symphonic structure, with the standard features of an opening allegro, an andante, a scherzo (in the form of a fugue) and a finale. To make both of these schemes work, Liszt relies on the technique of thematic transformation upon which so much of his music is based, developing the work's entire thematic material from a constellation of cells presented in the opening measures. In the foreground at any given time, there is great diversity of texture and character — enough for a true multi-movement work — but in the background, there is tremendous unity.

Technical And Intellectual Mastery

There are bigger names among pianists, but Stephen Hough's performance of the Piano Sonata in B minor sets him apart from the rest. Utilizing all of his capabilities as a pianist, he expertly conveys the changing character of the music. At times, it sounds as if he's playing several different pianos as he moves from a brilliant tone to a broader sound and back again. This piece requires not only the technical ability to play difficult music over a long period of time, but also the intellectual grasp to pull the threads together. Hough possesses both.

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Ted Libbey