Young Hungarian piano virtuoso Peter Toth (b. 1983) makes his presence felt by exploring the late works of Franz Liszt (1811-1886), pieces that are neither bravura, nationalistic showpieces nor theatrical exercises in romantic gesture. These works might be construed as musically self-effacing. This is not to deny the truly ferocious pages in the 1871 BACH study, at times a combative toccata in boldly dark colors. Originally cast for the organ in 1855, the piano version remains astonishingly thick and feverishly chromatic. Always fascinated by the procedure of thematic transformation and variation, Liszt sought to extend the tonal envelope, to throw “the spear as far as possible into the endless realm of the future.”
The Variations on Bach’s Cantata No. 21 were composed in 1862; and after the relatively soft and diaphanous statement of the theme, the entire piece’s sonority could have been fashioned for Cesar Franck. Short, introspective riffs and motivic fragments dominate; there is little extension in the melodic tissue, perhaps the influence of late Beethoven. At seven minutes into the Cantata study, the intensity thunders forth, declamatory and sweeping in the manner of one of Liszt’s opera paraphrases. But the heroic impulse fizzles out, and we find ourselves in a labyrinth of tracery and distant bells again. When the passion erupts once more, it seems obsessive, over-wrought, rhetorical. More familiar is the seventh from the set of Poetic and Religious Harmonies, the Funerailles (1849), which celebrates the passing of Hungarian patriots and the spirit of Frederic Chopin. Toth’s grasp of this moody lament is thorough and majestic, in the best tradition of Horowitz and Bolet.
The last three selections on Toth’s program are least grateful for ego-ridden virtuosos: each participates in what Liszt called “death poetics.” Willful, fragmentary, dissonant pieces like At Wagner’s Grave (1883) and Gray (or Colorless) Clouds (1881) appear to abandon all hope, all earthly ambition. Tone clusters, fourths and fifths, pass by in tender, if sterile, consolation. Hindsight allows us to appreciate these mysteries as forerunners of Schoenberg, Debussy, Webern, and Ligeti. Are the repeated notes at the end of the Wagner study teardrops? Unstern (1885) used to be the sole province of exploratory pianists like Gunnar Johansen and the young Alfred Brendel; they took their cue from Ferruccio Busoni. The tolling bells in Unstern dance around the Dies Irae in a painting by Egon Schiele. Its last chords, like those of Nuages Gris, stutter like a character in Ionesco or Beckett, powerless to answer the Sphinx’s riddle. Thought provoking and disturbing, this music regains its original, internalized fury from Toth, of whom we might quip that he is less a virtuoso pianist than a thoughtful musician.
[Alternately forceful and subtly-detailed piano sonics from this German label which mostly records pop acoustic guitarists…Ed.]
— Gary Lemco