Master and Pupil: from Beethoven to Czerny to Liszt

Melvyn TanFri 2nd September 2016

Melvyn Tan explores the musical and personal connections between these three giants of the piano

A celebrated and eminent pianist once remarked that planning a recital programme was close to planning a special dinner menu. Having to strike the right balance between the items, it also has to contain enough variety to entice, and something to catch the eye. For me, a touch of humour and fun would also be part of that balance.

Pianists have long been spoilt for repertoire, and no matter how much one learns in one’s lifetime, there is always more. For years I had been planning to tackle Liszt's B minor Sonata, but somehow never felt ready to meet its numerous challenges. Until a couple of years ago, when I said to myself: ‘Right, the time has come. Get on with it!’

I have always seen the work as intensely Classical in its concept and form. There is of course a huge, deep Romantic element which runs through the work, too, but for me the sonata stands as the pinnacle of the Classical era and as a gateway, a burgeoning out into the new Romanticism which went on to flourish throughout the 19th century and continued well into the 20th.

The work is dedicated to Schumann, Liszt’s devoted friend whom he so admired and loved, and who with another pianist/friend, Chopin, together accelerated the concept of piano technique and the standard of performance which players still aspire to this day. Schumann probably never played the work, but his wife Clara almost certainly did and was probably quite frank with Liszt about it!

Having put the sonata as the focal point of the programme, I wanted to examine how Liszt might have been influenced by music written before him, particularly that of Beethoven. Liszt’s admiration for Beethoven is well known, not least in the edition of the Beethoven piano sonatas Liszt introduced to the public during his lifetime.

One Beethoven sonata which kept coming back to me was Sonata Op 109. Like Sonata Op 110, it was conceived as a kind of homage to CPE Bach and the ‘Fantasie’ world which inhabited that music and its ideals. Free form, daring harmonies and keys, quasi vibrato (as on a clavichord, the ‘bebung’ effect,) unexpected outbursts, scandalous use of the pedal…These are all here in the music.

Putting the programme together, I soon began to spot musical similarities between the Liszt and the Sonata Op 109: for example, the lyricism, the free form, the fugal and contrapuntal writing, the use of the piano as a completely expressive device…All there, making statements of their own. The more I worked on these pieces, the more similarities and connections I saw in the music. The Bagatelles Op 126, which Beethoven is supposed to have written on acquiring his Broadwood from London, also have this wonderful expressive quality.

Like planning a menu, however, I felt there was something missing, something light and humorous as a contrast to all this seriousness and sorrow. A divertissement.

It’s been a while since I embarked on any piece by Czerny, but having always referred to his thesis on Beethoven’s piano works I always felt a certain admiration for this man who so meticulously noted down Beethoven’s teachings and thoughts. Czerny’s Variations on a theme by Rode is famous for its sparkling wit and humour, not least because Horowitz played it on numerous occasions as an encore. Here now I could see, hear and feel the fleeting finger work which so influenced Liszt in the sonata. Think of the end of the first section of the Liszt sonata, where the left hand is made to do a lot of this passagework: the lightness of articulation, crisp phrasing and almost spare use of pedalling all reflect that of the Czerny piece.

For good measure, I decided also to include the Funeral March which Czerny wrote to commemorate Beethoven’s funeral. I had read about this piece before but never managed to locate the score. I am therefore very grateful to the Beethovenhaus in Bonn for obtaining the music for me and enabling me to include it in this Master/Pupil programme.

The idea of the Master/Pupil is an ever evolving one. The Pupil soon becomes the Master and thus another cycle begins, another cycle of influence and tutorship. I know from my own experience that my teachers formed and instilled in me many of my musical thoughts which I still remember to this day, nearly 45 years on.

Beethoven, the grand master of Masters, taught the young and talented Czerny, who in turn took on the young Franz Liszt and groomed him to be the greatest pianist of all time.

Melvyn Tan’s new recording 'Master & Pupil – Beethoven, Czerny, Liszt' is released on September 23 on Onyx Classics. He performs the same repertoire at Wigmore Hall for his 60th birthday recital on October 13.

Melvyn Tan

Melvyn Tan has performed as concerto soloist with such prestigious ensembles as the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Academy of St Martin’s in the Fields, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, Salzburg’s Camerata and Mozarteum orchestras, Melbourne Symphony and on tour with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. More recently, Tan has made regular appearances with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and with the London Chamber Orchestra, recording Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on the orchestra’s LCO Live label.

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