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Liszt deconstructed

New York
Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall
01/18/2018 -  
Elie Siegmeister: Sonata No. 1 “American”
Franz Liszt: Sonata in B minor – Saint Francis Preaching to the Birds – Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (arr. Ferruccio Busoni)
Edward MacDowell: Woodland Sketches, op. 51

Cecile Licad (piano)

C. Licad (© Sarah Black)

Back in the day, some 30 years ago, Cecile Licad was more than an up-and-coming pianist: she was already at the top of her profession. That meant engagements with the all major symphony orchestras, big name festivals and recordings on a major label. It seems Ms. Licad’s career is nowadays much more subdued, though she is still quite active and recorded a couple of albums of American music for the Naxos label. The recital I attended was presented by the New York organization Key Pianists whose mission is to present pianists who “share their artistry with New Yorkers who may not otherwise have a chance to hear them”. In the case of Sara Davis Buechner, who in June of 2017 was also presented by the Key Pianists, it fortunately is not the case, as she is a relatively frequent visitor to New York and thus more frequently displays her tremendous skills as a pianist.

Program-wise, Ms. Licad’s recital had a lot to offer and presented a variety of rarely performed music by American composers as well as staples of the repertory by Liszt. But even among the well known works such as the Mephisto Waltz, this time it was played in a rarely heard version by Busoni. The detailed and informative program notes by Thomas Nickelsen pointed to some interesting similarities in education between Macdowell and Siegmeister and relations of MacDowell and Liszt. It also offered a very extensive analysis of the Liszt Sonata together with music examples of the major thematic material: as far as program notes go it was indeed a rarity.

Elie Siegmeister (1909-1991), as did many American composers in the 1930’s, went to study music in Europe and not surprisingly ended up in Paris with the famed Nadia Boulanger. His orchestral works were deemed worthwhile even by Toscanini, who as we know did not count as a one of the greatest exponents of American composers. The Sonata No. 1 “American” (the first of five he wrote), is a sophisticated work albeit quite “easy on the ear”. It’s based on some folk tunes or, in the outer movements, jazzy sounding material and in the words of the composer is an example of “American panorama”. Since we always tend to compare unknown works of music to ones we know, or to composers we are acquainted with, comparisons with Copland are obvious but only to a degree. In any case, Ms. Licad made an excellent case for that work and presented it with boundless energy, a natural feeling for the jazzy – or in places Caribbean – elements and the proper character. Interestingly enough, both the first and last movement, though very spirited, brisk and energetic, end quietly in the mood of a folksy ballade. One had to be grateful to the artist for acquainting us with an important piece of Americana: I am ashamed to admit having never heard this sonata until now.

Similarly to the first, the second part of recital started with another example of American music, the miniatures by Edward MacDowell (1860-1908), one of the first major American composers. As with Siegmeister, as a 17 year old boy MacDowell ended up in Paris studying piano and in 1880 was heard by Liszt, who must have been taken by his talent. During the ensuing years, the Master was instrumental in the development of MacDowell’s career both as pianist and composer. His fame in Europe was based mostly on his piano concertos, but he composed smaller pieces, as in the cycle of Woodland Sketches. This set of ten little pastoral idylls has something in common with the miniatures of Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Grieg though one can hardly detect any influence of his native land. Yet the tempo markings are given in English and are of quite a descriptive nature: gracefully, merrily, dreaming, swaying rhythm, buoyantly and such. In this stylish, refined and appealing if not terribly sophisticated set of miniatures, Ms. Licad created an atmosphere that perfectly suited those works: nice sound, nice touch, nice finger-work (especially in the No. 2 “Will o’the Wisp”). It was a welcome opportunity to hear a work which doesn’t frequently appear on recital programs.

That was followed by two compositions by Liszt. The first, a sort of a tone poem for piano Saint Francis Preaching to the Birds was inspired by Liszt’s newly found devotion to religion and his taking four minor religious orders that gained him the title Abbe. As far as piano playing went, the chirping sounds of the birds were fine, but the Saint’s preaching part would hardly make a convert. The rhetoric-recitatives, to my ears, sounded rather flat and lacking expressivity while in the more stormy moments the balance between the leading voice and chordal accompaniment was inadequate. Alas, many pianists fail to bring the requisite oratory skills to Liszt’s works.

The great Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni transcribed for piano numerous organ and instrumental works of Bach, as well as an array of compositions by Mozart and many other composers: some of those transcriptions are great, while others monumentally great. With the Liszt Mephisto Waltz No. 1, already a prefect virtuoso vehicle, fiendishly difficult as it is, Busoni had regrettably far less luck: he supposedly transcribed it from the orchestral version, and in my perhaps not humble enough opinion that was a mistake. In too many instances this version sounds muddy, dense, opaque, unclear and misses a lot of the original’s beauty. Some pianists avoid falling into this trap and instead of playing Busoni’s version complete, as Ms. Licad did, choose a mixture of the original and transcribed version.
All the technical difficulties that Busoni heaps on the pianist barely justify the effort a pianist has to undertake. In Ms. Licad’s performance, in numerous difficult moments instead of a sense of insouciance and effortless virtuosity, I felt almost a struggle. There was not much subtlety, let alone clarity: Busoni painted Liszt’s original thick and it was not easy to penetrate that layer of muck. The last few pages sounded downright out of control and frantic.

Yet the reception that our pianist received at the end was tumultuous and we heard two encores: Ravel’s “Ondine” from the triptych Gaspard de la nuit and Gottschalk’s Souvenirs d’Andalousie. “Ondine” was mostly a mess and if one was to picture a water-nymph that evening, she was swimming in a muddy pond. The Gottschalk is a highly virtuosic work but not devoid of charm: alas again under Ms. Licad fast fingers the charm was only alluded to and again she aimed for surface effects.

I have not mentioned yet the colossal Liszt Sonata in B minor, the most essential work on the program with which Ms. Licad concluded the first part of her recital. How to phrase what I felt it in the most charitable terms? It was an individual performance of a work that customarily can tolerate an individual approach. However, of Ms. Licad individuality all I can only say is that I experienced a feeling akin to that when one listens to a foreign language in which one is able to recognize only certain words and not quite able to actually decipher the rest. Yes, there were moments where I recognized the original but those moments were dispelled quickly by the performer’s eccentric approach to the rhythm, dynamic, articulation and phrasing. All in all, one witnessed only the glimpses of a formidable command of the keyboard and those were marred by persistent overuse of pedal, inexplicable and far too frequent agogic changes and a scant sense of discipline.

On the page, it looked like a very carefully conceived recital and it had its moments. Alas, there were too many instances where this listener craved for some less deconstruction.

The next recital in this series, on Feb. 2, features another legend of the late 60s and 70s: Misha Dichter, who in 1966 triumphed in Moscow during the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition and caused many observers to question the jury’s decision to grant the first prize to a young Russian, Grigory Sokolov. Well, history proved those doubters profoundly wrong. Let’s hope that Mr. Dichter’s recital brings back his former glory.

Roman Markowicz



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