Monday, 6 June 2011
Listening to Liszt
The BBC Radio Three programme about Liszt and gypsy music (we can apparently use the word gypsy' in this context without offence) is in preparation. Last week it was Simon Broughton, tomorrow it will be Leslie Howard to interview. So my morning is spent listening to the double CD of Howard playing Magyar Dalok & Magyar Rapszódiák (Hungarian / Gypsy Songs & Rhapsodies) on the Hyperion label. The treat above is a later work.
I have also been reading Liszt's treatise on The Gypsy in Music, not regarded now as wholly reliable, and salted with anti-Semitism. Essentially, Liszt compares the lives and contributions of Jews and gypsies, and identifies the first with meanness and money and law tra-la, the latter with nature, melancholy and a kind of cultural autism. He far prefers the gypsies. However, Liszt's text was probably corrupted by his mistress, Princess Carolyne, who was certainly anti-Semite in the Wagner vein.
But that is beside the point here. What is fascinating to hear are the elements of the jagged, barbaric, sometimes slushy, but always energetic material Liszt embraced from his sources. The syncopation, the modal twists and turns, often from major to minor and back again, the characteristic highly-stressed endings, the fancy cadenzas, the melancholy and the furious quickly succeeding each other. I have been familiar with some of themes and modes from early childhood (my mother liked at times to dress as a gypsy: I imagine she might have met some gypsy women in Ravensbruck and Penig, and always asserted how much she liked the gypsies she had met). Liszt turns them into concert pieces and Howard plays them brilliantly. It makes me curious about the balance between village inn and concert hall.
There is, in any case, considerable overlap between various kinds of 'gypsy' music and folk music. The most interesting piece on the album is the odd man out, the rarely performed Rumanian Rhapsody (no 20) that, as Howard points out in his notes, has a distinctly Bartókian air and is rather different from the Hungarian gypsy material. Another distinction. Where did it come from?