The Seattle Symphony’s successful pairing: Schubert and Liszt

I had never before heard three of the offerings on the Seattle Symphony program this week, yet the composers are household words among classical musicians: Schubert and Liszt. Perhaps it’s weaseling to say I didn’t know Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasy.” I do, but not in this transcription by Liszt where he has added an orchestral component to a solo piano work

The first measures are disconcerting. The orchestra takes the initial piano measures and feels heavy in comparison. However, in general Liszt has kept the orchestra in a relatively supportive role and left the piano part alone. At a couple of points his intervention enhances the original: an exquisite duet between solo cello and piano and an equally lovely one for piano with bassoon. Liszt’s is a romantic interpretation of Schubert, but it worked with the sensitive playing of pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin, who never lost sight of Schubert, but played as though he was Liszt.

The stories of Liszt’s performance prowess are legion, and in his “Totentanz” (“Dance of Death”), it is obvious why.

Liszt’s piano of choice was an Erard, its action modified to a hair-trigger response, and his playing of this particular work must have occasioned a mobbing of the stage afterward (something that not infrequently happened, often by adoring females).

Hamelin had no quick-action Erard, having to make do with an ordinary modern Steinway with its far heavier action. He rose above it, in an extraordinary performance of these “Dies Irae” variations where it seemed he had ten fingers on each hand to encompass the torrents of notes, lightning octave passages in both hands, and sweeps of the piano end to end. He had the needed energy and forcefulness without banging, and his fingers caressed the keys with relaxed ease in more peaceful passages. He gave the work its character, and kept its shape.

“Totentanz” is a whiz-bang, technicolor, blockbuster spectacular. Hamelin made sure that it was music, too, the orchestra under visiting conductor Dennis Russell Davies ably supporting him throughout. Maybe the audience didn’t mob the stage, but it stood, shouted and brought the soloist back time after time.

The Thursday concert at Benaroya had begun with another unfamiliar Liszt, his Symphonic Poem No. 6, “Mazeppa.” Paul Schiavo’s informative program notes mention that Liszt was really the originator of the tone poem that became so popular with later composers like Richard Strauss. From a tale by Victor Hugo, this one is loaded with drama in the orchestra, with galloping horses, trumpet fanfares and more. Liszt’s use of instruments is masterly, and Davies led a performance which drew out all the details wthout ever detracting from the headlong rush, sudden collapse and exciting finish.

In an excellent choice of programming, the concert finished with more Schubert, his teen-age Symphony No. 3, classical, elegant, light and charming, like a delicate sherbet to cleanse the palate after a satisfactory but hefty meal.

Davies’ clear conducting brought out the best from the orchestra in all four works, and his rapport with Hamelin made it clear they were on the same page interpreting the two piano compositions.

It was a splendid concert.

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