Joel Hastings plays Chopin
If he can do that well with Liszt . . .
by James Leonard
Some folks can't stand the sound of fingernails on blackboards. Others can't stand the sound of breaking glass. Me, I can't stand the sound of the music of Franz Liszt. Take away its superhuman difficulty and extraordinary charisma, and what have you got? Music with more effects than causes, with more notes than meaning, with more sensibility than sense. It's music of incandescent banality, superficial profundity, and bone-deep vulgarity. It's music that, despite the best efforts of superhuman virtuosos with extraordinary charisma, hangs like a dead duck from the neck of Romantic music.
So when I say I wasn't looking forward to an all-Liszt recital, I mean I really wasn't looking forward to an all-Liszt recital. But what could I do? The pianist was a friend, and while I'd heard his disc and it was bloody staggering I'd never heard him live. I figured I'd check out the first half and leave at intermission. Forty-five minutes of Liszt would be more than enough for me.
Instead I stayed through the whole concert, because Joel Hastings's all-Liszt recital was absolutely stunning from the first note to the last. Hastings is a superhuman virtuoso with a massive sound and monumental technique. Hastings has extraordinary charisma that commands complete attention. But best of all, Hastings is a real musician, and his musicality makes an audience pay attention not to him but to the music he's playing.
But who'd have thought it could work even when the music he's playing was by Liszt? Fortunately the whole recital was made up of Liszt's arrangements, fantasies, paraphrases, potpourris, and what-have-yous of other composers' works. At least in the case of operas by Handel and Wagner and songs by Schumann and Schubert, the originals are first rate, and, as if in acknowledgment, Liszt stays pretty close to them. Of course, in the case of operas by Donizetti, Tchaikovsky, and, to a lesser extent, Verdi, the originals are less than first-rate and
less adaptable to the piano.
But, under Hastings's hands, it all worked. His performance of Liszt's more-or-less straight transcription of Wagner's Liebestod was especially transcendent. Through his control of balances and dynamics, through his command of tone color and pedaling, and especially through his imaginative, emotional, and even spiritual feel for the soul of the music, Hastings's performance achieved a kind of beatific rapture.
On Friday and Sunday, December 9 and 11, Joel Hastings will be playing Chopin's Etudes at First Baptist Church. If he can make glorious music with a fraudulent poetaster like Liszt, imagine how he will fare with the true poet of the piano.
[Review published December 2005]