Founded by David Kushner, Fernando Laires, and Charles Lee, the American Liszt Society was incorporated in 1964. The purpose of the Society is to promote scholarship and general understanding of the full creative and historical significance of Franz Liszt on the education and development of both the composition and performance of music throughout the Western World. Each year ALS festivals have presented member talent and outstanding guests celebrating Liszt, his influence, and his ideals.
Throughout its history the Society has endeavored to bring the ideals and philosophy of Liszt into the contemporary setting to aid and to serve colleagues and to promote high standards. The membership has been comprised primarily of musicians, but members have come and continue to come from scores of other professions (for example, medicine, business, journalism). As Liszt “hurled his lance into the future,” the Society strives to perpetuate and more fully to understand Liszt’s contribution and special message.
This album preserves contributions of three pianists to the performance legacy of outstanding interpreters of the compositions and transcriptions of Franz Liszt. ALS recognizes such outstanding individuals by awarding the Medal of the American Liszt Society. The artists presented in this album were awarded this medal in the 1980s (Arrau in 1984, Johansen in 1986, and Bolet in 1988). In each case a verbal testimony and a handsome medal were presented. The current offering is more significant. It is a musical testimony created by the artists themselves, constituting a tribute to the great master, Franz Liszt.
It is with great pride and pleasure that the American Liszt Society sponsors the release of this album on the occasion of the bicentennial of the birth of Franz Liszt. May Liszt’s spirit continue to inspire great artists to achieve the lofty goals exemplified in these performances.
President, American Liszt Society, 2011
These three artists were born over a period of eleven years and worlds apart: Arrau in 1903 (Chile), Johansen in 1906 (Denmark), and Bolet in 1914 (Cuba). They died within eight months: Bolet in October of 1990, Johansen in May, and Arrau in June of 1991. These are facts of coincidence only; it is their having been recipients of a medal of the American Liszt Society that links them here. What matters for this album’s purpose is how they played the music of Liszt. The word superbly comes to mind, after differently.
Arrau, the longest lived, had the vastest recognition worldwide so his passing was universally noted. In the last three decades of his nearly eighty-eight years, a mystique about his interpretive abilities developed. Seen as a figure of near-biblical import to many, particularly in the late sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert, Arrau’s Brahms, Schumann, and Liszt were also ranked at the heights, particularly through nearly sixty well-marketed studio recordings for Philips.
Bolet, at seventy-six the shortest lived, enjoyed an efflorescence of esteem over his last period of more than twenty years but never had the following of admirers akin to Arrau’s. Nothing about Bolet encouraged sycophancy, although his performances of Chopin, Liszt, Franck, Rachmaninoff, Godowsky, and Prokofiev brought thrilled audiences to their feet and astounded other professionals. He had the support of a major label, Decca/London, only in those waning years.
Johansen, whose eighty-five years places him between the two others, was known to far fewer people, yet his was the greater personality, his repertoire the more encompassing, and his artistry sometimes mystically supramundane. He shunned the commercial world for the respite of his post as Artist-in-Residence at the University of Wisconsin, which he held from 1939 to 1976. It was in Madison that Johansen performed comfortably more than a thousand times and where he made his recordings at home for his own label, Artist-Direct.
Based on accumulated memories of witnessing each in public repeatedly and of hearing dozens of their recordings, some many times, over more than fifty years, it occurred to me that a single sentence with three “descriptives” might encapsulate the overall impression their pianism made: When Arrau played, the piano glowed; when Bolet played, it blazed; when Johansen played, it incandesced. But listening to these performances proves the inadequacy, even error, of so general a statement. The music demands such variety of responses to its content that one adjective or another might apply only to a passage, a phrase, a section. Aesthetic impact is tough to convey through words, particularly because what one feels is subjective, and highly dependent upon the individual. Words have shortcomings where the art of sound is concerned, as Liszt himself recognized: Music embodies feeling without forcing it to contend and combine with thought, as it is forced in most arts and especially in the art of words.
Liszt felt that instrumental music lets the emotions radiate and shine in their own character—his thought, set forth in words. To him, a score and its verbal directions of mood and pace were means to that end: My greatest ambition [is] to leave a work with a few useful instructions for the pianists after me. He knew that A person of any mental quality has ideas of his own, and that Initiative is indispensable for first-rate performances. Thus, in Liszt’s century, no two performances, based on “a few useful instructions,” were ever expected to be the same, no two interpretations of a score’s written directives were ever meant to sound the same—not if performers showed the initiative of using ideas of their own to allow “the emotions to radiate and shine in their own character.” Modern pedants are driven crazy by this flexibility of intent so vital to Romantic expression. Whether as critics or teachers, they rail against pianists who dare indulge their imagination in bringing to life a score. Their cry is “Let the score speak for itself.”
Confronted once in my presence by an assertion of the sort by such a person, Ernst von Dohnányi, who was soft spoken, held up a volume of Beethoven sonatas, put it to his ear, and said simply, “I don’t hear a thing.” That point made, we can turn our attention to the performances of the three pianists presented in this tribute. Immediately apparent are all the elements of initiative in interpretation, of individual ideas about each work, of intent, determination, and passion in their realizations. Liszt came naturally to all three.
Bolet’s supremacy as a great keyboard artist is borne out through his unvarying control of tone, voicing, pedaling, tempo, and taste—all balanced with each other. A fastidious musical instinct operates throughout the Valse-Impromptu, Petrarch Sonnets, B-Minor Ballade, and Spanish Rhapsody. The master-of-all-he-surveys, Bolet encompasses these pieces, never suggesting that he is on the brink of approaching any limit. The three Sonnets receive a treatment of nonpareil beauty suited to the texts which inspired them first as songs, then as piano pieces. As he wrests huge bronze-toned sonorities from the Baldwin piano in the largest moments of the Ballade, a grand narrative in tone, and the flamboyant, colorful Rhapsody, one wracks the memory for the name of another pianist who could achieve a result as ringing with such an instrument.
Bolet enjoyed nearly infallible fingers. When he was in the armed services and assigned with violinist Aaron Rosand to the Pacific Theater of Operations, they played concerts for the troops. Speaking decades later of their period together, Rosand said, “Jorge never missed a note.”
Johansen’s fingers generally were the equal of Bolet’s. Moreover, he possessed the physical stamina of a Viking. Extraordinarily, he did not perspire when performing. After one recital which ended with the Twelve Transcendental Etudes and after another comprising all the Magyar Dollak and Magyar Rapsodiak, Johansen’s dress shirt and tailcoat were as dry to the touch as they had been before he played. Only once in this writer’s experience did he display somewhat moist armpits and that was following a performance of the massive Busoni Piano Concerto. So unusually strange was this phenomenon to Mrs. Johansen that she wondered whether her husband might be ill.
The Reminiscences of Don Giovanni finds Johansen in his element—assertive yet sensitive (through the veil of Liszt’s elaborate pianism) to Mozart’s original material, ever the conquering hero. La Campanella and Feux Follets bear eloquent commentary on Johansen’s mastery of light and delicate execution with unusual sensitivity to high treble sparks. The Paganini-Etude No. 5 is a marvel of crisp, fleet execution, while Vision presents a terrifying look into the red-hot molten core of Liszt’s inner life and the unnamed Transcendental Etude No. 10 offers to even the most jaded ears the full panoply of excoriating and agitated Romanticism. The Fantasy on Themes from Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens invites a certain hearty brusqueness which Johansen provides with gusto and relish. Years after making this recording, he played Liszt’s version for piano and orchestra where he introduced a stunning effect with the great octave scale which sweeps up the keyboard about six minutes into the piece. This he blurred completely with the pedal across the piano’s whole range—and left hanging in air the vast cloud of muddled sound. When queried, he explained with only two words, “The ashes.”
Changes of that sort and others to be noticed here and there reflect Johansen’s conviction that Liszt’s writing often provoked a creative response. That on occasion he felt free to combine passages from the several versions of a piece will be noticed by attentive ears. Bolet sometimes altered the layout of Lisztian passages and strengthened bass lines. Arrau did not.
Arrau’s After Reading Dante and Sonata in B Minor may astonish, perhaps dismay, the generations younger than my own, since their risk-taking bravura and colossal roars of expression lie far removed from the realm of sobriety, restraint and occasional dullness of the later Philips recordings. Truth is, Arrau’s first four-odd decades as a performer saw his path strewn with criticism for being too much that of a style-less technician bent on display and not enough of a musician. Truth is further that Arrau’s personality prevented for many years his being able to maintain a constant, uniformly excellent level of musical concentration, playing colorfully one night and colorlessly the next. Not until he abandoned a major portion of his repertoire to focus on Austro-German classics did he find the poise that everyone could approve—and relate to—nearly all the time.
Even more astonishing then that Arrau roused himself at age seventy-nine to the fever pitch of the final third of this Dante-Sonata to belie that late reputation, as do sections of the Sonata in B-Minor (at age seventy-four) which, in their tempests, border on collapse. There is tremendous drama in this struggle of a man with himself, his instrument and the repertoire he is playing. Harsh tones crop up. Tempi are stretched out and pushed forward in his effort. Throughout, the effect is more than involving for the listener, it is thrilling. These performances, like that of Gnomenreigen, are of genuine interest—in a sense—the most interesting of all.
In 1976 I auditioned for Jorge Bolet at Indiana University, in awe of the master whose recent recordings had so impressed me. He requested that I begin with a Chopin etude and when I finished playing the first Godowsky version of Opus 10 No. 5 he was beaming. He practically ran to the second piano and proceeded to play a number of the Chopin-Godowsky etudes for me. I had already heard Horowitz, Richter, Arrau and many other great pianists in concert, not to mention hundreds of historical recordings, but none surpassed, and few even equaled what I heard at that audition—it was sheer pianistic sorcery! I learned that in person he was often so much greater than most of his recordings, and when his Godowsky recording came out, although it was beautiful and all of the mastery was there … it had little of the drive, the poetry and, yes, the sorcery I had witnessed first hand! I thought of the stories about Godowsky himself, considered by Rachmaninoff and Hofmann to be the greatest of the great, but only for friends in his studio. Apparently a mere handful of his recordings give an idea of that greatness.
In 1977 Bolet brought me to the Curtis Institute, where I worked with him a further seven years, during which time I also became his teaching assistant. I remember him after lessons asking if I would hear him play works such as Reger’s Telemann variations and Rachmaninoff’s Chopin variations. The same thing happened, for he played with a transcendental freedom and mastery of all pianistic and musical aspects of the works. Some of this was lost when he performed them in public a few days later, and much more lost when the recordings came out, beautiful, but not close to what I had been privileged to hear. I also sat in on his recording session in London for Liszt’s “Suisse” during which he cursed the microphone many times and played things much “safer” than I was accustomed to hearing from him. He really seems to have been his happiest and freest when playing for a small number of appreciative listeners; this was confirmed for me by many who knew him longer and better.
I feel that his true greatness can be heard on recordings presented here, as well as his 1953 Prokofiev Second Concerto recording, the RCA recordings from the 1970s, some pirate recordings also from the 1970s, and some of the later Liszt recordings, especially the Schubert-Liszt album, which is simply ravishing. By the time he made his later Decca discs he was a bit tired and would complain to me that now that he was an “old man,” he was playing the more than 100 concerts a year that he should have been playing when he was 40!
His playing became more and more introverted, a bit like the later Gilels, whose playing he adored, and whom I saw embrace Bolet in London in 1982 saying “I love you, Bolet.”
I must add that his knowledge of the repertory from Bach to the moderns was complete. He was playing late Schubert sonatas in Carnegie Hall in the early 1940s, long before most other non-German pianists ventured to offer those masterpieces in public, and he gave many premieres of modern works as well; he was by no means just a “romantic” pianist, but rather a truly universal musician who had studied conducting under Reiner and knew the orchestral, chamber and operatic repertory thoroughly.
Ira Levin, now a conductor while remaining a pianist, studied with Jorge Bolet from 1977 to 1985. He became an assistant conductor at the Frankfurt Opera, principal conductor of the opera houses of Bremen and Duesseldorf-Duisburg, principal guest conductor at the Kassel Opera, music director of the Theatro Municipal in São Paulo and the orchestra of the National Theater of Brazil, Brasilia, conducting more than 1000 performances of 60 operas and hundreds of symphonic works with orchestras throughout the world. His recent recordings include symphonic works of Michael Colina and Bruckner, and as pianist, his own transcriptions, recordings that are already classics among collectors
Around 1978 a university professor set me the assignment of comparing three performances of a single composition. I chose Liszt’s B Minor Ballade, and the three pianists were each excellent in their characteristic ways. Gunnar Johansen bowled me over by his vigorous, technically impeccable performance, which to me was a revelation of Liszt’s style. Above all, Johansen’s performance was exuberantly energetic. The university where I studied fortunately had almost all of Johansen’s Liszt and Busoni recordings. I was immediately hooked (some might say ‘converted’). Here was playing that married technique with musicianship in the all-too-often underrated music of Liszt; whose compositions now sounded so meaningful, deep, and spiritual—not mere frippery.
In 1988 I wrote Johansen a fan letter. He replied with characteristic generosity, including a large package of scores and tapes. Two years later when I met him, he was already in physical decline, but a few hours in his company was at such a high level that I left limp with exhaustion. His fundamental characteristic seemed to be boundless energy, and as a jest I used to say that there were at least seven different men operating under the name of Gunnar Johansen.
His long-playing disc recording series of much of the keyboard music of Bach, Busoni, and Liszt attests to a gigantic appetite for music, an inspirational foreshadowing of what has become current practice, where music is created by individuals in basement studios, far from big business and its creative restrictions. Johansen was not a great recording engineer, although he functioned well enough in capturing the fundamental sound quality of the piano. Added to this amazing ‘work-enough-for-a-lifetime,’ are his compositions, numbering over 700.
Of Johansen’s compositions I feel somewhat qualified to speak, having access to the manuscripts of virtually all his written works, and having heard the “Improvised Sonatas” up to about 400. In his twenty cassette series of his own music can be found a brilliant pianist performing with verve, improvisational flair, and the occasional blatant disregard of his own notation (for ‘the letter killeth the spirit,’ as Liszt repeated). But in his performances of others’ music, Johansen was scrupulous. His chordal playing was unsurpassed, his sense of counterpoint was bedrock-solid (as befits a composer), and above all his manner of shaping phrases was ideally “phonogenic,” repaying frequent re-hearings. In Liszt,
Johansen had an unerring sense of style and intention—especially in the late works and most remarkably in those pieces where no performance tradition existed which would have given him a “leg up.” He found his own way right to the center of the music. Perhaps some of his performances are too intense, and he goes beyond what the medium of recording can bear. For example, in Ricordanza: if it is a bundle of love letters (as Busoni suggested), then Johansen wrote in dragon’s blood.
Perhaps this can best be explained with a comment by Ronald Stevenson, himself a great pianist and composer, who wrote recently: “[Johansen] plays as a composer in music other than his own. Many pianists who do not compose, often play brilliantly though without conveying the music’s structure.”
The ideal of the pianist-composer, once the norm, is expressed in the life and creativity of Gunnar Johansen.
Pianist, composer, and independent researcher, Gordon Rumson has performed extensively, composed over 100 works in a variety of genres, and written numerous articles on a wide range of topics that have been published in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, The Wisconsin Academy Review, The Journal of the American Liszt Society, International Piano, and online at Other Voices and Music and Vision. He has done extensive research into little-known composers such as Gunnar Johansen, Denis ApIvor, and Arthur Fickénscher, as well as aspects of the soundscape. He is active as a storyteller and elocutionist. He is currently the editor of a six-volume series devoted to the music of Gunnar Johansen, to be published in the near future.
By the time I was fifteen I had heard a number of great pianists in New York—Horowitz, Michelangeli, Richter, and Rubinstein—but when I first heard Claudio Arrau, I knew instantly he was at least their equal. Arrau had a fine reputation but, at the Juilliard School where I studied, he wasn’t held in high esteem. (Why that might be could be a subject for another essay.)
Arrau’s sound was big, round, resonant, deep, dark, and multi-hued. Then there was his sovereign technical mastery, but one difference from some of the other titans was in how he resolved the most awkwardly difficult but un-showy passages in a completely musical way. He made no external reference to pianistic heroics, something only very good pianists would even notice. Finally, emotion: Arrau at his best never held back—he lived the emotional flow of the music as a great actor lives a role. His stylistic range was broad, as was his repertory. Critic Andrew Porter noted that he was an artist who, in a recital of Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, and Liszt, could convince you that he was a specialist who had spent his life with each composer, and only that composer.
My teacher Olga Barabini, a disciple of Arrau (and before that a student of Hofmann!), prepared me well, introducing me to many of Arrau’s ideas. Later, in 1973 and 1974, I was fortunate to have about two dozen lessons with him. Like Liszt, he taught gratis, but only when he was moved to do so. Lessons were about two hours long, the most wonderfully exhausting lessons of my life. During those two hours Arrau’s consciousness was totally focused on me and the music; no detail was too small to escape his attention, no concept too large.
He would show me where I held my breath, where I was tense (and why), where a fine fingering might be less good because of possible stage fright. He would have me sing a passage—not softly, but standing in the crook of the piano like a real singer—to find out how I really felt a phrase should go, and then work with me to translate my feeling into piano playing. Embarrassing at the moment, the exercise was helpful in getting over emotional inhibition.
He had me take apart one complexly textured passage in Beethoven’s First Concerto (2nd movement recapitulation): left-hand line like beautiful bass pizzicati, middle voices a balanced wind choir, soprano floating free above all this. We spent more than a half hour on eight bars. I failed to achieve perfection, but Arrau could understand that I “got” the principles involved, and said something like, “Please master this, don’t discard it because it’s inconvenient. Many gifted people don’t make the effort because they can make it sound quite good anyway, but if you learn to do this you will have resources you will use the rest of your life, whether you apply them here or not.” He did not teach me interpretation. Instead, Arrau was intent on teaching the structural, pianistic, compositional, and musical principles from which I could make my own interpretation.
Of course, not just anything would be OK. At that time I was under the spell of pianists of the 78 rpm generation and once he heard me play a Chopin Waltz in the “old fashioned” way as an encore. Although he praised the recital in general, he took me to task for what he considered reprehensible naughtiness. “Pandering to the worst instincts of the public,” he scolded.
Like all artists, Arrau had his own interpretive fingerprints, or filters though which he viewed musical reality. He was raised in Die Neue Sachlichkeit, the “new objectivity” of the Berlin of the 1920s. In that environment, paradoxically, he grew up hearing towering romantic performers. Furtwängler was clearly a dominant influence, toward whose ideal Arrau aspired to be the transcendent embodiment of great music, and its spirit.
His romantic nature notwithstanding, Arrau sought textual and emotional fidelity. He also tended toward the dark tragic visions of German musical culture, often modeled on the Beethovenian struggle from darkness to light. He took nothing less than seriously, and for him, to be entertaining was anathema. As he aged he tended toward slower tempi, not to everyone’s taste. Now that I sometimes do the same, I understand what Arrau meant—you can’t hear all of what’s going on in the music at a faster speed. I never challenged Arrau; I revered him. Now, as a mature artist, I wish that I could sit down with him for a less-reverent conversation. There would be so much to talk about.
Garrick Ohlsson was born in 1948 in New York. Apart from Arrau and Olga Barabini, he also studied with Sasha Gorodnitzki, Tom Lishman, Rosina Lhévinne, and Irma Wolpe. He won first prize at the Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition in 1966, first prize in the Montreal International Piano Competition in 1968, then in 1970 the Gold Medal at the International Frédéric Chopin Competition in Warsaw, and in 1994 he was awarded the Avery Fisher Prize. He is one of today’s busiest concert pianists, appearing worldwide as recitalist, with orchestras and in chamber performances. He has recorded extensively, including the complete works of Chopin. In 2008 he won a Grammy. He has an unusually large repertoire including eighty concertos and is also known for his exceptional keyboard stretch (a 12th in the left hand and an 11th in the right.)
Claudio Arrau, Jorge Bolet, and Gunnar Johansen
American Liszt Society Laureates
It is with great pride and pleasure that the American Liszt Society sponsors the release of this 2 CD set on the occasion of the bicentennial of the birth of Franz Liszt. This compilation preserves contributions of three pianists (all American Liszt Society medal winners) to the performance legacy of the compositions and transcriptions of Liszt. Claudio Arrau, Jorge Bolet, and Gunnar Johansen each provide a unique perspective on Liszt's genius. Insightful notes are provided by Frank Cooper, Research Professor of Musicology at the University of Miami. In addition, personal recollections of their respective teachers are provided by Ira Levin, Gordon Rumson, and Garrick Ohlsson.