Lay off Liszt!
For an extremely famous composer in his bicentennial year, Franz Liszt can't catch a break. Earlier, I blogged about two equivocal opinions on Liszt's alleged greatness, one thumbs-up, the other thumbs-down. Now, the Philadelphia Inquirer's excellent classical critic David Patrick Stearns weighs in with his own confession: He loathes Liszt. Or at least he usually does, and for the same flaws for which Liszt-bashers have long wagged their fingers at him. He's garish. He's banal. "His melodies seduce you but there's nothing behind them," writes Stearns.
Of course, if Stearns doesn't want to get into Liszt, there's nothing to stop him, as Yogi Berra would say. And Stearns does admit that Liszt occasionally has his moments, such as when he's played by modernist-pedigreed pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who explores the futuristic nature of Liszt works in a new album. Like other Liszt skeptics, as well some less negative authorities, Stearns is especially taken with Liszt's late piano works, in which he foreshadows such later musical phenomena as impressionism and atonality, making the composer a prophet of the critics' beloved musical modernism. That these works are some of Liszt's dreariest probably only enhances their appeal to those who would place themselves above the hoi polloi, i.e., the suckers who would buy and (though they shouldn't) enjoy charismatic pianist Lang Lang's terrific new Liszt album.
Bombastic bad. Prophetic good. "Garish" bad. "Spiritual stillness" good. Stearns seems to want Liszt to be something other than he was, something that better conforms to our own time's tastes. Generally, at least as expressed by the opinion makers, these tastes gravitate toward the cerebral and forward-looking, and avoid display and sentimentality like the plague. Over-the-top romanticism is icky. Restraint is cool. Well, maybe it is. But it wasn't Liszt's way. To fully embrace his music, you need to embrace its excesses, not shun them. If you can't, and still don't like him, that's ok too. No one likes everything.
My recommendation? Check out the Liszt recordings by two late great pianists, Jorge Bolet and Earl Wild. These superb pianists both possessed both the firepower and the poetry to do justice to Liszt at both his most virtuosic and most lyric. Best of all, they played his works, even the chestnuts and potboilers, as if they believed in them. Because they did. And so might you, when you bask in their interpretations.