Lisztian Loves Reviews

Chicago Tribune
“Lisztian Loves”

John von Rhein, Classical music critic
July 23, 2011

Paganini was in fact the common denominator between the Ravinia programs on Thursday and Wednesday– more precisely, Franz Liszt’s transcription of the famous Paganini solo-violin Caprice No. 24 that serves as the basis for Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody.

The veteran pianist Andre Watts took to the Martin Theatre stage on Wednesday to perform Liszt’s “grande etude after Paganini” as one of the segments of “Lisztian Loves,” an unusual recital given as part of the festival’s summer-long observance of the composer’s bicentennial. What made the show so interesting was that the generous array of familiar and rare Liszt solo pieces performed by Watts was tied together by a theatrical narration delivered by actor Michael York, who played Franz Liszt. Here was the aged, ailing, weary virtuoso-composer, looking back at his life and loves as he contemplated his own approaching mortality.

Written and conceived by Harry Clark and directed by Troy Hollar, the show was built around the talents of Watts and York, both of whom made it an absorbing evening of music and theater, cleverly interwoven. The pianist was in terrific form, his playing licked by Lisztian flame. Liszt’s music had given the young Watts his first big successes, and he remains one of our foremost Lisztians. York did not appear to be in the best physical health but this actually helped him create a believably frail but still feisty Liszt – peppery of mind and tongue, a legend in winter grandly strutting his final hours on a world stage once was his sovereign domain.

This was more than a clever impersonation: Liszt himself stood in front of us. Rocking gently in time with the music, he listened along with the rest of us while Watts thundered and sighed at the keyboard. And then Liszt, too, burst into applause, as if recalling the bravura thunderbolts with which he had once enthralled all of Europe.