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Tien Hsieh brings considered technique and intense expressiveness to her Liszt

The painting that inspired Liszt's "Sposalizio"
by Raphael, from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Piano Month continued today in the Noontime Concerts™ series of recitals at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. Tien Hsieh returned to the venue to present a recital consisting almost entirely of the work of Franz Liszt. The major works were the first and last movements from the second (Italian) “year” of Années de pèlerinage (years of pilgrimage), “Sposalizio” (inspired by Raphael’s painting of the same name, known in English as The Marriage of the Virgin) and the “Fantasia quasi sonata” entitled “Après une lecture de Dante” (after reading Dante). These were preceded by Liszt transcriptions of Johann Sebastian Bach (the BWV 542 organ prelude and fugue in A minor) and Franz Schubert (the D. 343 song “Am Tage Aller Seelen,” translated in English as “on All Souls’ Day”). The Bach transcription was followed by another organ Bach transcription by Ferruccio Busoni (the BWV 639 chorale prelude on “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,” translated into English as “I call on Thee, Lord Jesus Christ”).

The most ambitious of these selections was the so-called “Dante Sonata,” the last and longest piece on the program. Like a sonata it is based on a few basic themes, laid out in a framework that even vaguely suggests exposition and recapitulation. However, in the manner of a fantasia, Liszt piles “extreme embellishment” on his thematic core, unfolding each into an almost integrated prolongation that amounts to more of a battle between Hell and Heaven than any of the narrative elements of the Divine Comedy. If Dante has any role at all in this music, it would be the resemblance between the length of Liszt’s prolongations and Dante’s terza rima rhyme scheme, in which the middle line of each tercet (group of three lines) provides the rhyme for the outer lines of the next, making each tercet a cue for the one to following in a seemingly unending process.

What was important about Hsieh’s performances was that, in the midst of all this excess, she always knew how those core themes were embedded in the embellishments. She could thus state the presence of that core with impeccable clarity, regardless of the density of prolonging content. The result still approached the monumental in its overall duration; but Hsieh always made sure that the attentive listener was aware of which of the themes was being developed when, thus capturing the tension between those themes as the fundamental narrative motivation of the music.

“Sposalizio,” on the other hand, was more meditative in nature. Raphael’s painting captures only a single moment. However, through the use of perspective, that moment is very much confined to the foreground, while there is a clear sense of life for everyone else going on in the background. There is also a bit of that “detachment of the ordinary” in the foreground with the “best man” more interested in breaking a twig than in observing the exchange of rings.

Liszt’s “meditation” on this painting tends to focus almost entirely on the bride, the groom, and the priest performing the service. There is one basic hymn-like theme, which is the only subject for elaboration. The elaboration patterns are initially modest, perhaps capturing the thoughts going through Mary’s head; but they accumulate grandeur as the piece progresses, turning the listener’s thoughts (if not Mary’s) to anticipation of the Nativity. Because this music speaks for itself with greater clarity than Liszt’s “Dante encounter,” Hsieh could again draw upon her capacity for clarity to bring the embellishment of the thematic material to the listener’s attention.

That technique served her equally well in bringing out the vocal line of the Schubert transcription. The organ transcription, on the other hand, was more of an exercise in sonority. Rather than simply capture the counterpoint of Bach’s music, Liszt clearly envisaged how different ranks of pipes would be brought into play as the music unfolds; and, as might be guessed, he was particularly interested in evoking the sound of those pipes played with the keyboard for the feet. Hsieh took a gradual approach to building up the resources of her piano to follow Liszt’s lead, resulting in some powerfully thundering passages when the penda keyboard finally has its say, strong enough to leave one wondering if the piano would survive the entire recital.

Busoni’s Bach transcription, on the other hand, was far more modest, capturing the extent to which this music was played for parts of the service when the congregation was expected to meditate. Hsieh clearly appreciated how Busoni’s approach differed so distinctly from Liszt’s. Nevertheless, she played the chorale prelude in such a way that the attentive listener could appreciate that there was as much depth to Busoni’s talents as there was to Liszt’s.

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