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The Hungarian Liszt..? Exclusive interview with pianist Klára Würtz

In order to attract extra attention to the international Liszt year 2011 celebrations, Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell assisted by Alexander Buskermolen had the unique opportunity of speaking with internationally renowned pianist Klára Würtz. An international competition prizewinner with numerous notable recordings for the Brilliant label, Ms. Würtz was born and trained in Hungary and graduated from the Ferenc Liszt Academy in Budapest as a student of Zoltán Kocsis, Ferenc Rados and György Kurtág. Ms. Wurtz is also a Professor at the Utrecht Conservatory (Hogeschool voor de kunsten) in The Netherlands.

PJ: We are very happy to have a chance to speak with you about your relationship to the work of Franz Liszt. To the world, he is one of the most versatile and interesting personalities in Western art music, but to you he is also a compatriot. Could you please elaborate on these two sides of Franz Liszt?

KW: First of all it’s important to know that it’s very difficult to speak about a clearly Hungarian identity. Liszt, although Hungarian-born, didn’t speak the language. His parents were of German descent and in the service of Prince Estherházy. Also, considering the fact that the country has been fighting for an identity of its own for hundreds of years, it’s even difficult to define the typical Hungarian identity. If we are talking about Liszt and his musical vocabulary, I would consider it to be much closer to Beethoven then to any Hungarian composer. The content of his musical gesture is, as we know, programmatic and highly tied up with the political issues at the time.
For example, his “Funérailles” (1849) is a clear response to the 1848 Hungarian Revolution and a strong political statement. This political involvement shows that Liszt’s heart was indeed Hungarian and that he was compassionate with the Hungarian people. Other compositions like his Hungarian Rhapsodies are, despite their folkloristic elements, obviously works of showmanship and a presentation of his unique piano technique.
Even so, Liszt’s legacy both as a performing artist and as a composer are extremely important to classical music, and have been stepping stones for composers such as Bartók, Ravel and Ligeti.

PJ: In media discussions all over the world, including the talk between Barry Douglas and Leslie Howard on the BBC, it is obvious that the world’s opinion of Liszt has undergone a tremendous transformation during the last thirty years. From being known as a shallow virtuoso showman he is now considered a deeply thoughtful and perhaps the most omni-conscious and knowledgeable composer of the Romantic era. What has allowed this change to take place?

KW: I feel that Liszt’s works were highly revolutionary, both technically and musically. It’s true that for the earlier part of his life Liszt was more of a performance focused musician/pianist, who gained fame simply because of his incredible and unique capabilities at the piano. After maintaining this lifestyle for about ten years, he felt this path didn’t bring him sufficient satisfaction either as a composer or as a performer. He simply quit his role as a ‘circus-like’ artist, and went on to become the unparalleled musician we know he really was. I sincerely believe the transcendental qualities in his performances are unrivalled, even on today’s concert stage.
Having said that, I believe something in Liszt’s compositions has created both strong enthusiasts and strong, more negative opinions. I find that these attitudes do not do justice to the great and important musician he was. His music, in my opinion, is universal. In the end, the qualification of (his) music always depends on the eye (ear) of the beholder. The simple fact that there are so many Liszt competitions (just as there are Chopin competitions) around the world shows what great a composer Liszt truly was. He still challenges pianists to explore the technical boundaries of the instrument. In other words, as a pianist you can’t get around the oeuvre of this composer.

PJ: What areas do you find most interesting in Liszt’s piano music and why?

KW: Regrettably I don’t play as much Liszt as I’d like to. I think that by playing more of his works I’d learn a great deal more about the piano and music in general. I do feel his musical language is close to my heart. Then again, it’s deeply connected to the music of Bach, Beethoven and later, Belá Bartók. It needs to be said that Bartok’s music is easier for me to understand exactly because I’m Hungarian. It’s not, however, a free ticket to fully grasp the content of his compositions.

PJ: Hungary has a remarkably rich and strong tradition with outstanding musicians, composers and pedagogical impact. You recorded Bartók’s third piano concerto in 2009. Is there a trace of Liszt in modern Hungarian composers via Kurtág and until today? If so, in what sense?

KW: I believe Ligeti is the composer who studied Liszt’s works most closely. This shows not just because he’s Hungarian too, but because of the way he uses piano technique. In the works of Ligeti there’s a clear footprint of the transcendental études of Franz Liszt. If we look at Kurtág, I can hear an older Liszt in his compositions. Aspects of resemblance would be the more experimental, atonal side of these late compositions.

PJ: Franz Liszt was a renowned teacher, with students (400) all over the world. They eventually also held major positions at conservatories in almost every country. Scholars also like to compare the methods of Chopin and Liszt. Is it possible to talk about a Liszt method in piano pedagogy today?

KW: I don’t think you can say there’s a specific Liszt methodology today. We know he taught a lot of students, and that many of his students became excellent pianists/performers and/or teachers themselves. I believe people like Bartók and Dohnanyi had a greater influence and legacy on piano pedagogy. There’s a big difference between pedagogic qualities in general and the (revolutionary) qualities of his compositions.

PJ: For a pianist, playing Liszt is extremely developmental. Do you have advice on what pieces could be used for a student’s first experiences with Liszt’s music?

KW: For young students there are the “children’s études,” works Liszt wrote when he was 14 years old. Even here you can hear the “sacred fire” we know from his later pieces. Some of the themes in these early works can also be found in his Transcendental Etudes. Although most of Liszt’s later pieces are technically very demanding, I’d suggest some of the more introverted, less technically demanding études and “sonnettes”.

PJ: Some people say that nothing really happened in piano technique after Liszt. Is this a fair statement?

KW: Although we’ve talked about the revolutionary qualities of Liszt’s works, and his unique and unparalleled accomplishments as a performer, I don’t think he was the last person to have a major impact on piano playing in general. There have been many great pedagogues in Hungary during the last century, including Ernö Dohnanyi. During his time at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, together with Weiner, there was a very dynamic process going on in the classrooms. Between those teachers there are big differences in focus and style. Weiner, for instance left a great legacy in terms of bowings, fingerings and the analysis on all the works of Beethoven. It is important to know that Weiner himself wasn’t even a violinist, an advantage in the sense that he was unbiased about the compositions that included the violin. Being a pianist himself, Dohnanyi understood the piano (technique) very well. Weiner was both analytical and also able to focus on the big structure and meaning of the work. Then there was Kurtág, who was able to read all the scores like an x-ray machine, in terms of how much effort he put into his work as an composer and artist.

PJ: Liszt’s vivid palette covered every aspect of the human psyche; from the pyrotechnically extravert to the meditative religious, which makes him something of an enigma. Musicologist Tibor Szász (1985) suggests, for example, that the B minor sonata is based on biblical texts…

KW: Exactly. This B minor sonata is a tremendous milestone in the piano literature. It contains so many different aspects of life, of course also in a very religious way. Again, it’s the transcendental aspect of his compositions, which culminated in this sonata, that makes it unique.
It’s an incredibly journey both for the pianist who performs the piece and the listener. To maintain this ongoing tension for half an hour is highly demanding, let alone the technical difficulty involved in executing the piece correctly.

PJ: The link between great literature and music was clearly felt during the Romantic era, and poets show up everywhere. There are even similarities in drama and articulation between the poets’ texts and the composers’ musical works (Chopin/Mickiewicz or Schumann/Heine). In that respect, was Liszt inspired by Hungarian storytellers and poets?

KW: As we mentioned before, Liszt didn’t speak Hungarian. Naturally, it was impossible for him to make this deep connection between Hungarian literature and his music. I believe Hungary has an impressive tradition in literature. Our language is very rich and has many possibilities. I believe Liszt in this respect was more focused on the German and Italian languages. The relationship between Goethe and Liszt is, of course, most explicit.

PJ: You have recorded a great deal of Schumann (see the complete works boxset). Is there a Liszt quality in Schumann, or the other way around?

KW: In a way that question is impossible to answer. Both composers are unique and have found their own ways of expressing their emotions and thoughts and ideas. Of course we know both composers were very much aware of each other and spent time together. In a technical perspective there is a big difference, for instance, in the way both composers ‘incorporate melodies in their scores, and divide them between the hands. I can aslo identify a typical kind of “Schumann passion”, which is easily recognized. It’s also completely different from the way Liszt has eruptive emotion embodied in his piano works. The fact that their musical language is very different is attributable to the fact that their characters were completely different: the individualist (Liszt) and the humanist (Schumann).

PJ: What edition of Liszt’s piano works do you play? What edition can you recommend?

KW: I’ve always used the Edition Musica Budapest, to be more specific the complete edition. I find it very reliable and comprehensive.

PJ: This is probably an impossible question to answer but which is your favourite Liszt piece and why?

KW: Liszt wrote many amazing pieces for the piano, but my absolute favorite is the Sonata in B minor. This piece has such vision and such amazing transcendental qualities, it’s kept my attention for a very long time now. Even though I’ve never performed it or prepared it for concert execution, I feel I cannot get around it. I’m sure the time will come when I feel I’m ready to perform it in concert, and I am actually really looking forward to that day.

Hear samples from the CD: Klára Würtz plays Romantic Piano Music

Klara Würtz Zongora – documentary film:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8


  1. Orlando Says:

    This is a very beautiful, nostalgic, very sensitive. In addition she has excellent technique and is a beautiful woman. For the rest, is an excellent video, very clear and good sound-

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