Was Franz Liszt the best pianist ever?

That’s what the question said. Here’s my Quora answer:

B48ABT Liszt, Franz, 22.10.1811 - 31.7.1886, Hungarian composer and musician, caricature by Janko, from

This question cannot be satisfactorily answered. No matter how much evidence can be provided that he was or he wasn’t, there will always remain the question of personal taste and choice. But let’s try.

What evidence do we have?

Firstly, there are the works he left behind. Those who can play all of those are really top level pianists. Liszt’s piano music is extremely difficult. The 12 Transcendental Etudes Schumann thought would only ever be adequately performed by a maximum of twelve pianists in the world at any given time. The pages are black with notes, and only once various patterns have been cracked does it become clear that the music was written by a pianist who fully understands the movement of the hand over the keyboard and it is not totally impossible. But until that point it is tricky and requires immense technique.
Take a piece like La Campanella. I have never heard this performed as I imagine Liszt to have performed it. I am able to criticise weaknesses in the piece performed by even the world’s best pianists of today, and yet I still can imagine Liszt surmounting these.

The transcriptions he made, particularly the ones of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and Harold in Italy are said

to be in many places pretty much unplayable. The jumps, the chords, the speed etc. Could Liszt have played those sections? Hmmm…possibly…probably.

Secondly, there are the accounts of Liszt’s playing. In his lifetime of recital (a term he invented) playing, there are very, very few bad reviews, or even criticisms of his playing. 99% of critics are just gobsmacked by what they have heard. Although Liszt was a pioneer in piano technique and pianistic effect, he was nevertheless up against performers like Thalberg and Dreyschock who were plying the same trade and so he was not unique in terms of being a travelling virtuoso. The most significant person to pass criticism on Liszt’s playing was Clara Schumann, and there it is not possible to rule out ulterior motives for her negativity. So one can read up from contemporary accounts just how amazing Liszt’s playing was.

Thirdly, there are the accounts of his lessons which he gave. In later life a few of his pupils like August Göllerich, Amy Fay and Carl Lachmund documented his lessons/masterclasses. Here we can get an idea of the subtleties of Liszt’s playing. Things like dynamics, speed – and then the rapturous accounts, by great pianists, of Liszt moving onto the piano stool and demonstrating.

Fourthly, whether he could play well or not, Liszt’s contribution to piano technique, piano effects, piano orchestration and piano transcriptions was huge. He was a true pioneer. Even if, say, Saint-Saëns were proven to be a better player than Liszt, Liszt would still have some claim to the title purely by means of his contribution to the instrument.

Finally, Liszt was never recorded. So we will never know just how disappointed or blown away we might be by hearing his playing. This is one factor that keeps him ahead, for those who believe he was/is the best ever.

A further point is that these days there are quite a few good Liszt players. Somebody like Evgeny Kissin plays Liszt how I imagine Liszt may have played Liszt. But Kissin’s Haydn, Schubert and early Beethoven is a little too heavy for me. And this is where I think Liszt would overtake him in being able to play Liszt like Liszt and Haydn like Haydn etc.

His sound can only exist in our imaginations at this point, but it is extremely likely that if we ultimately get to hear him in Nirvana/Heaven/Valhalla, we will be in for a very pleasant surprise.

Liszt, ambiguous Hamlet, and Tristan


A piano reduction of the opening of Liszt’s Hamlet.

I was looking at Liszt’s Symphonic Poem Hamlet. Not one of his most popular.

It occupies much scholarly debate as to how much of it is directly programmatic, how much is intended to be programmatic, how much is vaguely programmatic, and how much is accidentally programmatic.

And Liszt, throwing his lance into the future, mischievously produced a revision to the piece by inserting a middle part “as if a silhouette of Ophelia.” Leaving open the question: So is it Ophelia or isn’t it?

Liszt was impressed with the actor Bogumil Dawison’s dramatic interpretation of the role of Hamlet. Dawison presented a more strategized portrayal of Hamlet. A man with a little more intellect and emotion, rather than the fortune-swept character trying to effect immediate change.

Musicologists armed with this fact, derived from a letter to Agnes Street-Klindworth have used it in many papers to make more programmatic sense of the symphonic poem.

Yet I claim the work continues to evade clear programmaticism of obvious storyline events. Despite Dawison’s interpretation of the Hamlet role, Liszt still seems to have favoured a blurring of clear interpretation. It is something which many composers have found opens up their music to more listeners, interpreters and performances. Consider how Mahler removed titles from his symphonic movements and how most nicknames of compositions are not the invention of the composer.

As Paul Merrick pointed out in his Revolution and Religion in the Music of Liszt, Liszt says that Hamlet in his poem “remains just as he is, pale, fevered, suspended between heaven and earth, prisoner of his doubt and lack of resolve.”

Liszt does a masterful job of realising just this in his Hamlet.

The key signature of 2 sharps is greeted by the horn playing an E flat. Interesting for the musicians expecting D major or b minor. In fact those two keys are never really encountered in the opening section, despite it being the advertised tonal basis.

Doesn’t that remind you of the Tristan prelude?

Liszt was supposedly working on this work at the same time – composed in 1858 (Tristan und Isolde 1857-59). It suggests to me that Liszt and Wagner had a chat or two about harmonic ambiguity.

As in the Tristan prelude, Liszt also starts with a build-up to a curious  chord (C# diminished with a minor 7th), but rather than the interesting Wagnerian resolution onto a 7th chord, Liszt resolves it onto a diminished 7th chord. The musical, certainly harmonic, definition of ambiguity.

Bar 6 contains the Tristan chord itself, which I have not yet seen referred to in the 1st-with-the-Tristan debate. (Although this may well be an earlier example than Wagner’s, there is an even earlier one in Liszt’s 2nd Polonaise (b.100) from 1853).

The interval of the augmented 4th, the crucial harmonic building block of the Tristan chord, is referred to time and again as a melodic interval. When compared with other symphonic poems, his trademark practice of Thematic Transformation is present here but with no triumphal close. In other words, as Merrick points out, there is transformation, but no redemption. Hamlet.

Not to get bogged down in lengthy harmonic analysis, and to conclude: Liszt’s Hamlet is an ingenious piece of writing. In all aspects of the music it paints the Hamlet personality and story – dark, ambiguous, undecided and troubled; at the same time it provides events from the Shakespeare story, as the countless other studies for this seem to determine.

Whilst on yet another level it also makes a Hamlet out of the listener, the performing musician and the harmonic analyst.

Beethoven First Performances


Today I was considering the realities of first performances of Beethoven’s Symphonies after getting notification of a question about that on Quora.

I would imagine that given the choice to reverse time and relive first performances of Beethoven’s symphonies would be a fairly underwhelming and disappointing experience.

I was once told that in the 19th century to find brass players one had to look in pubs, and to find string players- brothels. I’m not sure about that, but it illustrates how difficult it would have been to get a competent group together.

So the standard of playing was probably not up to much. In addition, even with good players, and Beethoven did know a couple of these, the amount of rehearsal time would have been limited by finance and other logistics.

The instruments belonging to such a motley band would also have been suspect.

As for the premiers themselves, the music of Beethoven was thought to be crass by many who were just getting used to the Classical mischievousness of Mozart and beginning to understand the intellectual games of Haydn. Beethoven’s dynamics, orchestrations, harmonies and games with established formal norms would have been upsetting or at least unappealing.

The premiere for the 5th Symphony happened at the same concert as the premier to the 6th Symphony and the 4th Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasia. Four and a half hours. Too long. Even with no PS4 to rush home to.

That concert was reported as being “Inferior in every respect.” Many of the orchestra that Beethoven would have liked to have used and played at the theatre of the premier were booked for another gig. And the weather was freezing.

For us, one aspect of orchestral playing would appear weird – and no doubt also have resulted in a different sound: free bowing. Synchronous bowing was not important in those days, and so the observer would see a sea of string players all sawing in different directions.

It’s strange that the modern day purists don’t demand this technique in order to hear how the music really might have sounded.


The "Young Timer" Music Blog

If it isn’t Rachmaninoff, then it is Liszt, or Chopin, or Shostakovich, or Rubenstein. Mostly after Rachmaninoff is surely Liszt. I felt most recently that I was listening and playing too much Rachmaninoff, I felt that I was blinding myself musically (if that is such a thing) somewhat but nevertheless. It’s something that I am quite guilty of.

There hasn’t been a piece of music in a while that has effected me in such a way that Liszt has. We all know that Liszt was one of the most virtuosic pianists of his day, and is regarded as an innovator of music. Because of him, pianos are now at the side when being showcased in a concert and how as he puts it himself, the prolific role of the conductor:

The principal task of a conductor is not to put himself in evidence but to disappear behind his functions as much as…

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Mendelssohn PS

One of the first things that my bright class spotted in terms of difference between the Mendelssohn MS and the final printed version is that he originally had Clarinets in A.

That’s quite significant in terms of timbre of what is at times a texturally exposed work – eg. 2nd subject of the 1st movement.

Mendelssohn Violin Concerto



Interesting to see that the autograph of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto has the instruction Allegro con fuoco, which was changed for publication to Allegro, Molto Appasionato. A couple of other discrepancies exist such as some extra notes for the soloist and the Prestissimo towards the end of the first movement.

I am hoping that there is a documented source to confirm that the changes were Mendelssohn’s – possibly under the advice of Ferdinand David, for whom the concerto was written.

Nevertheless, these performers have chosen to stick to the original markings in their recording:


Here they are explaining what they were doing:


If you happen to play this piece, it is worth looking at the advice given by Joseph Joachim (pseudo friend of Liszt) who on a number of occasions performed the work with the composer at the piano. His advice is here:

After being initially worried that the printed version we now have is not true to Mendelssohn’s wishes, I think that the revisions were for the better. Even with Daniel Hope aware of the original indication, it is very difficult to evoke a con fuoco sound to the first subject of the work, and Allegro, molto appassionato seems to convey the relentlessness for which Mendelssohn was assumedly looking.

Seems like Ferdinand provided decent advice.

First One

Hi. I’ll be using this blog to put forward ideas about music that I discuss with friends and others from time to time.

If you find interest here, that’ll be nice.

The first one is likely to be about a tempo issue in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

Stay tuned.