Thomas Purviance on Franz Liszt


Liszt Bicentennial, the raison d’etre

2011 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886). The American Liszt Society lists various conservatories that are celebrating the bicentennial. The New England Conservatory in Boston salutes Liszt with seven concerts featuring all piano majors in its Lisztomania marathon.

Coincidentally, it is also the year of the International Franz Liszt Piano Competition which occurs every 3 years in Utrecht, Netherlands, where I have been living since 2006. The winners get to tour the world until the subsequent competition. As audience, you attend the semi-finals and finals not to understand and appreciate Liszt but to experience piano playing at its best. You sit and watch young pianists devour Liszt repertoire with stunning virtuosity. The Liszt menu varies by the day, and die-hard Liszt aficionados (a.k.a. Lisztians) never tire of it.

Having hosted a Liszt prize winner twice and listening to him bringing out the most from my Steinway grand, I thought I knew Liszt until I heard Thomas Purviance at the Maui Arts & Cultural Centre (MACC) yesterday.

Legacy of Franz Liszt

On Sunday 10th April 2011, Purviance presented Liszt as a person —with a slide show projected to the big screen. He greeted the audience as a storyteller, introducing Franz Liszt as a pianist, composer, teacher, and benefactor. He contrasted Liszt with Chopin, whose 200th anniversary preceded Liszt’s by a year. While Chopin played in salon concerts, Liszt preferred public concert halls. While Chopin wrote almost exclusively for piano with great perfection and mastery, Liszt’s music extended far beyond the piano but not everything was perfect.

After this introduction to Liszt via Chopin, Purviance played the Etude de Concert no. 3, also known as Un Sospiro which means “a sigh.” My Finnish friend had introduced this piece to me in London. It was nice to hear it again. I could easily have mistakened it for one of Chopin’s works because of the distinctive melody floating on the wave-like arpeggiation beneath. It was  a good opening piece to those of us less familiar with Liszt. Below: Thomas Purviance playing Un Sospiro in the Czech Republic.

[Un Sospiro PDF score]

Paganini made a huge impression on Liszt. After hearing the violinist perform in Paris in 1831, Liszt decided to do the same for the piano by extending what was technically possible for the piano and establishing new standards of performance. Liszt took 6 of Paganini’s original caprices and turned them into a volume of work for the piano, entitled Grand Etudes of Paganini, S141, of 1851. Embedded in this are new innovations for piano playing.

Purviance demonstrated the alternating octaves in the beginning of Paganini Etude no. 2 in E-flat before executing the piece beautifully.

[Paganini Etude no. 2 in E flat PDF score]

The Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) contain some of Liszt’s finest works, inspired by his years in Switzerland and Italy. Purviance chose Vallee d’Obermann from the first pilgrimage (to Switzerland). The melancholic mood is entirely different from the romantic mood of the next piece, Sonetto 123 del Petrarca from his second pilgrimage (to Italy).

[Vallee d’Obermann, no. 6 in volume 2: PDF score]

Finally, Purviance gave an example of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no. 12, lesser known of the 19 piano solo works based on Hungarian gypsy tunes. Through this format of slide show, lecture, and performance, Purviance showed his knowledge of Liszt and repertoire and shared his love of the music he selected in this programme.

[Hungarian Rhapsody no. 12 PDF Score]

The audience leapt to give a standing ovation. But something was amiss. Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 is not like the No. 2 which has become famous through use in cartoons and Hollywood films. How should an all-Liszt concert end?

Purviance read our thoughts.

He said, “When I gave this concert to some friends, they asked, ‘haven’t you forgotten something?’ ”

Without further ado, he sat down and rolled out one of Liszt’s most famous and eternal pieces — Liebesträume (Dream of Love).

[Liebesträume PDF Score]

After the concert

Later I learned from a fellow listener that Thomas Purviance gave a concert of all Chopin works in 2010 in the same location — similar format. This integrative approach of introducing the composer through his works, portraits, and influences fared well with the audience, for you get to understand and appreciate the artist.

Whose birthday is it next year to get the Purviance touch? I only got as far as getting a business card from Thomas Purviance in the back stage. But his card had nothing to do with music!

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