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Franz Liszt: Not just fireworks, but colourful fireworks
Franz Liszt was one of the greatest pianists in history. He had a career that spanned over five decades, one which was full of accomplishments enough to guarantee him a place in history. Liszt was to the piano what Berlioz was to the Romantic orchestra, or Rossini to Italian Romantic opera - iconic. Liszt's musical talents were apparent by the age of 7, and he was sponsored by a group of Hungarian noblemen to have a music education in Vienna with the composer Carl Czerny. Nevertheless it was in Paris, in his teens and early 20s that he attained public recognition of his skills.
Liszt's works are a favourite among concert pianists. The Chinese pianist Lang Lang considers the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 his favourite piece to perform. It was one he came across when he turned ten, and he considers it not only a challenging exercise technically because of the octaves, but also one that is difficult expressively. Lang Lang considers the rubato in the middle section expressively challenging, in the sense that pianists have to find the correct blend of stretching the tempo without losing too much of the sense of pulse.
Another of Liszt's greatest works could be said to be the Deux Legendes. The general image people have of Liszt is one of pianistic fireworks - loud, fast, bombastic, virtuosic and pyrotechnical - but the Deux Legendes show Liszt going beyond that, revealing himself too as a lyrical poet too. The French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet has said that "When you play them in concert, you find that there is something completely magical that happens every time. For me, it [No. 1: St. Francis of Assisi's sermon to the birds] is like time is completely stopping - plus you have all those incredibly beautifully written birdsongs and the trills and tremolos: very difficult to render, but incredibly touching and moving, and inspiring to play." Thibaudet also considers No 2: St Francois de Paule to shows the orchestral skill of Liszt on the piano; "he had a mastery of transcribing the orchestra to the piano and you really find that here."
Liszt's Sonata in B minor is a favourite of concert pianists. The sonata broke new ground in many fields, most notably in lasting thirty minutes without a break, but while the length is an exercise in stamina itself, going the distance isn't the only thing. A pianist still has to keep an overview of the whole piece, maintain concentration and fully convey the range of emotions, being careful not to reduce the contrasting emotions to a smaller palette.
Liszt gave up performing aged only 36. In 1865, aged 54, he joined a Franciscan monastery in Rome, fulfilling a wish that he'd had at 14 to become a priest.
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