The North Carolina Symphony, under the baton of Resident Conductor William Henry Curry, entertained a large audience in Meymandi Concert Hall on Saturday, November 19, with two great legends. The first was pianist, conductor, and teacher Leon Fleisher, best known – currently – for his long and persistent struggle with a neurological affliction known as focal dystonia that rendered two fingers of his right hand immobile at the height of his career. Only recently, after nearly forty years during which he continued to seek treatments, has the affliction abated. His recent CD, "Leon Fleisher – Two Hands" (Vanguard), has been a smash classical hit. In the interim, he turned to conducting and teaching and, in his own words, "...realized that the most important thing in my life wasn't playing with two hands: it was music." As a pianist, Fleisher studied with Schnabel, who studied with Leschetizky, who studied with Czerny, who studied with Beethoven. Quite a pedigree!
In Raleigh, filling in for Angela Hewitt, Fleisher performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K.411(K.385p), written during the composer's early, happy years in Vienna. The music, however, reminded me of Salzburg. The bright, almost childlike tune that is the basis for the first movement brought back, for some unknown reason, images of a Sunday afternoon in Salzburg when we were trying to find a parking lot and became hopelessly lost in a residential cul-de-sac. We asked a family coming out of their home for help and the father invited us to park in the spot he was vacating in front of his home saying he and his family would be in the country all day. He further called a taxi to take us directly to the concert hall since we were already late. Mozart's sweet and charming melody brought that experience to mind as a joyful memory. The second movement, a peaceful andante, seemed a cross between a hymn and a serenade and was both soul satisfying and heart warming. The playful Allegretto was like the beautiful sunshine of that day in Salzburg. So, as if it made any difference..., though the piece was composed in Vienna, who is to say it did not come with him from Salzburg? After all, music is not limited by boundaries, location, language, or politics.
It was a privilege to see and hear Fleisher, even if his trills were not as smooth as they would have been forty years ago and his performance was not as intense as it might have been earlier in his career. He was and is a legend. His love of music and his still superb musicianship more than made up for any shortcomings in finesse.
The other legend was Faust, as dramatized in the music of Franz Liszt in A Faust Symphony, composed rapidly in 1854, with the epilogue for tenor and male chorus added three years later. It was first heard at the unveiling of a monument to Goethe and Schiller in Weimar on September 5, 1857.
The Faust legend had a pervasive and powerful impact throughout Europe from the early 16th century through and after Goethe's codification in his great epic poem. The story, germinating from an historic character, went through several transformations in the various retellings by unknown authors as well as writers like Christopher Marlowe and Gotthold Lessing. In Goethe's version, the legend becomes a cosmic treatise on man's eternal search for meaning and redemption in relation to the universe.
Liszt's fascination with Faust grew slowly. His future son-in-law, Richard Wagner, composed A Faust Overture in 1840. His friend Hector Berlioz composed The Damnation of Faust in 1846, Robert Schumann worked on music for Scenes from Goethe's "Faust" until 1853, and Gounod's opera appeared in 1859. Liszt himself began thinking of a work around the Faust idea in the early 1840s and shortly thereafter decided to give up his career as a piano virtuoso to concentrate on composing. He became associated with Wagner as a prophet of "the music of the future," and indeed there are passages that make clear the influence each had on the other. One story relates a scene at the premiere of Die Walküre with Liszt, Wagner, and Cosima sitting in a theater box together. When Liszt noticed Wagner getting more and more fidgety, he leaned over and whispered, "What is wrong, Richard? Are you ill?" "Papa" Wagner replied, "you may recognize this next little bit." Wagner had virtually copied a section from one of Liszt's recent works.
A Faust Symphony is cast in three movements, defined as "character pictures." The opening movement depicts Faust in his many moods, and though it sounds rather episodic, it has an intricate underlying sonata structure. The second movement describes the celestial purity of Gretchen. Some of the themes from the first movement intertwine with Gretchen's music, at times enhancing the intensity. The third movement, picturing Mephistopheles, contains distortions of themes from the first movement and one new theme, the "Pride" theme borrowed from his "Malédiction Concerto." In the epilogue, featuring tenor Robert Bracy and a male chorus from the North Carolina Master Chorale (prepared by Al Sturgis), Liszt uses the final lines of Goethe's epic poem wherein Faust finds redemption in Gretchen's love.
While not as memorable of some of Liszt's other works, it contains some stunning music by the often-underrated composer, and the performance made for an adventurous evening of musical enjoyment in Meymandi Concert Hall. The North Carolina Symphony in full ensemble and various solo and small ensemble passages performed admirably and took us into another world – a world of fantasy, legend, and self-exploration. Bracey and the male chorus brought the work and the evening to a brilliant and satisfying conclusion.