If Gerontius died today, it would probably be at a hospital with no Cardinal Newman to record his passing and no Sir Edward Elgar to create his beautiful dream of a masterpiece. And, one supposes too, there’d be no Daniel Barenboim to bring the work to Germany so powerfully as he does here, details and quibbles to follow. We don’t immortalize last words and thoughts the way we used to.
The piano music of Franz Liszt makes performing the central issue, a fundamental structural presence. Twentieth-century Werktreue just isn’t enough for these pieces. Many of Liszt’s pieces are keyboard performances of other composers’ music heard with Liszt’s ears. We call them arrangements or transcriptions, but what they are is a way of hearing. What always surprises me about a number of these transcriptions is their reticence. Liszt’s arrangement of the Schubert “Ave Maria” is almost demure, as befits the subject. His famous Isolde’s Verklärung is surprisingly faithful, and to my ears only sounds pianistic in the rattling chords underneath the climax of the piece. Pianists always say that these transcriptions are like actual piano pieces, not copies of anything. They make us hear what piano playing is to Liszt.
Schoenberg and his two most famous pupils, Webern and Berg, appear to be everywhere this season, receiving the most polished performances by the most distinguished musicians and ensembles. This is a somewhat absurd understatement when one speaks of the likes of Sir Simon Rattle, Peter Serkin, Alan Gilbert, John Harbison, David Hoose, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, and, soon, James Levine, but polish and musicianly mastery are the bare minimum for this uncompromising music, which is difficult for the players and, at least by reputation, for the audience. It is important to realize, however, that once performances are as plentiful and as excellent as they have been in New York and Boston over the past few months, the difficulty for the listener seems miraculously diminished. I’m sure all of these conductors have given serious thought to making this body of great works accessible and appealing to concert-goers, and all of these performances have been eminently accessible, with no trace the smoothing-over or dumbing-down.