CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In the world of music, the bicentennial of Franz Liszt is a cause for celebration. The New York Times, for example, recently referred to Liszt as a “chick magnet” and “19th-century rock star” who garnered groupies because of his piano technique, described as “jaw-dropping.” The Liszt Society of the United Kingdom describes him as a pianist who achieved “fame of altogether greater proportion than the world of art music has seen before or since.” Wikipedia refers to him simply as “perhaps the greatest pianist of all time.”
Pianist Ian Hobson has resisted the temptation to celebrate Liszt with obvious renditions of the composer’s most famous and flamboyant hits. Instead, Hobson – who is a professor with the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois and Swanlund professor of music – has programmed a series of three concerts that will feature some of Liszt’s lesser-known works, along with a seldom-played version of his most famous work, plus the contextual enrichment of works written by Liszt’s heroes and friends.
The first concert, on Feb. 23, is titled “Dedications.” Hobson will play Robert Schumann’s Fantasie in C, Op. 17, which Schumann dedicated to Liszt, and Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, which Liszt dedicated to Schumann. The two pieces are considered to be the greatest piano works written by the composers.
Hobson has titled the second concert, on March 1, “Studies.” Frederic Chopin’s 12 etudes, Op. 25, will make up the first half of the concert.
The etudes (studies), though not written by Liszt, are connected to him in other ways: Chopin dedicated the opus to Countess Marie d’Agoult, Liszt’s mistress at the time. The compositions motivated Liszt to compose some of his best work.
“They’re really the first set of concert etudes. Other composers wrote studies, like (Carl) Czerny, to be just played in the home, and then some transitional figures did things that were a little bit more toward the concert hall, like (Johann) Hummel and (Ignaz) Moscheles. But Chopin was the first one to take (the etude form) and make it a work of art,” Hobson says. “There’s no doubt that they inspired Liszt to write his etudes.”
The second half of the concert will feature those etudes, but not the version most popularly played. Liszt wrote a set of simple etudes in 1825, at the age of 14, but in 1839, while he was traveling the world as a performing pianist, Liszt reworked his old material into Douze Grandes Etudes (twelve great studies) – pieces that are so “incredibly difficult and complicated,” Hobson says, that “at that time, nobody but Liszt could play them.” (A final and technically less-strenuous revision, in 1852, resulted in the widely known Transcendental Etudes.) Hobson will perform this seldom-heard second version. “I find them very powerful pieces, as a set. They are overly complicated and overly difficult to execute, but I find them very satisfying musically,” he says.
Hobson will devote the third concert, “Heroes,” on March 4, to the composers Liszt most admired. In the first half, Hobson will perform a set of etudes Liszt composed in an attempt to emulate the most virtuostic pieces Niccolo Paganini wrote for violin. However, instead of the version most often performed – a simplified adaptation Liszt produced after retiring from concertizing – Hobson will play Liszt’s original 1838 set, Etudes d’execution transcendante d’apres Paganini. This version differs from the later set most markedly in the third etude, known as “La Campanella.”
“It’s really Liszt being so besotted by Paganini’s virtuosity on the violin that he wanted to recreate that on the piano, and he does that in a remarkable way in this set of pieces,” Hobson says.
“I mean, it’s not pianistic, in a way, because there’s so much like-violin writing. But Liszt is so skillful, he tries these daredevil feats of virtuosity that he got from Paganini.”
Long after he retired from the concert stage, Liszt also transcribed all the symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven, perhaps in an effort to make the music of his hero accessible to people who might never hear an orchestra, Hobson theorizes. He will conclude the third concert by performing Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s iconic Symphony No. 5 in C minor.
“It’s staggeringly difficult to play on the piano, which makes it interesting,” Hobson says. “But even though it’s so familiar to listeners, people have told me that they hear things (in the piano version) that they never heard in the orchestra. It’s a great testament to Liszt’s skill as a transcriber.”
Hobson has made such creative programming – along with technical wizardry – his hallmark as a concert pianist. He has made about 40 recordings as a solo artist, for Arabesque, Hyperion, and his own label, Zephyr Records, including most recently the complete works of Chopin (a 16-volume set). The next issue of Fanfare magazine will include a review of Hobson’s recordings of Chopin’s etudes, in which contributor Colin Clarke calls the CD “possibly the most intelligent, musical and fascinating version of the etudes I have come across.”
Hobson has performed with major orchestras including the Royal Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, and the symphony orchestras of Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. He conducts, from the piano or the podium, and is the founder of the internationally acclaimed Sinfonia da Camera. Hobson also is in demand as a jurist for international piano competitions, and will be on the jury of the Concurs Maria Canals in Barcelona, Spain, next month. At the university, he teaches more than 20 piano students.
Tickets to the Liszt series are available through the box office at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.