Taking on a dynamic range of Liszt

American pianist Steven Spooner.
American pianist Steven Spooner. PHOTO: STEVEN SPOONER



Steven Spooner Piano Recital

Esplanade Recital Studio/Monday

Imagine going on stage to give an all-Liszt recital and not knowing what pieces are to be performed. That was the quandary facing American pianist Steven Spooner, who had offered five lists of piano works by the virtuoso Hungarian pianist-composer for the audience to vote on before the concert began.

Comprising mostly young people and their parents, the audience had the good sense to shun the half-hour-long Sonata In B Minor and instead opted for Franz Liszt's song transcriptions, Transcendental Etudes and Hungarian Rhapsodies. Despite being mostly shorter pieces to accommodate shorter concentration spans, it was still a daunting prospect.

One of Liszt's legacies was to promote the music of less-celebrated colleagues by transcribing their songs as piano solos for performance. Spooner began with one selection apiece from Schubert's three great song-cycles. In Wohin? (from Die Schone Mullerin) and Standchen (Schwanengesang), he found a mellifluous singing line, with the echoing voices of the latter being a particular treat.

These were contrasted with the seemingly optimistic galloping rhythm of Die Post (Winterreise), a song bearing false hope.

Liszt's filigreed take on Chopin's Maiden's Wish called for nimble fingers, while the gift of romantic love in Schumann's Widmung (Dedication) was gratefully consummated in sweeping arpeggios and emphatic chords.

With Spooner leaving the most difficult for the last, Schubert's Erlkonig promised only tetanic spasms from the right hand's repeated octaves, while the left hand's octaves scrambled to keep up. The sense of desperation, of a father's plight in rescuing a sick child, was palpable, but unlike the song's plot, the performance did not end in tragedy.

Two of 12 Transcendental Etudes also gave a sense of the breadth and depth of Liszt's art. Preludio (No. 1), just a minute long, was a warm-up exercise for Harmonies Du Soir (No. 11), a glorious paean to the riches of chordal piano writing.

Even the two Hungarian Rhapsodies performed were not familiar favourites. Some listeners might remember the great French pianist Cyprien Katsaris polishing off Hungarian Rhapsody No. 5 some years ago, a funeral procession that carried the title Heroide-Elegiaque (Heroic Elegy).

Its lugubriousness was tempered by a central section of rare Chopinesque lyricism and Spooner's reading showed that this - rather than the oft-performed Funerailles - might have been Liszt's true tribute to Chopin.

More Magyar in spirit was the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 and, with Vladimir Horowitz's swashbuckling additions, Spooner raised the decibel level and lifted the roof off the piano.

With the noisy audience enthused, Spooner's encore of Liszt's rarely heard Rienzi Paraphrase, using themes from Wagner's early opera, was another work that tested the Steinway's dynamic limits.

To prove that utmost sensitivity was also an attribute of complete pianism, Chopin's melancolic Mazurka In A Minor (Op. 17 No. 4) provided a sublime and quiet end to an otherwise stormy evening.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2017, with the headline 'Taking on a dynamic range of Liszt'. Print Edition | Subscribe