Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Odyssey of Love - Liszt and his women

Lucy Parham
Odyssey of Love: Liszt and his women; Lucy Parham, Juliet Stevenson, Henry Goodman; Temple Music at Middle Temple Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 5 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Complex musical and dramatic portrait of Liszt and the women in his life

Henry Goodman
Henry Goodman
Lucy Parham's Odyssey of Love: Liszt and his women is one of her composer portraits which combines Liszt's music with spoken narration to tell the story of Liszt's relationship to the two main women in his life Marie d'Agoult and Caroline Sayne Wittgenstein. At Middle Temple Hall on 5 May 2015, Temple Music presented a performance of Odyssey of Love with Lucy Parham, Henry Goodman and Juliet Stevenson. Lucy Parham played Liszt's Consolation No. 3, Impromptu in F sharp, Au bord d'une source, Stanchen, Sonetto 104 Del Petrarca, Transcendental Etude no. 1, Un Sospiro (Etude de concert no. 3), Fruhlingsnacht, Chasse-Neige (Transcendental Etude no. 12), Sancta Dorothea, Am Grabe Richard Wagner's and Alleluja.

Juliet Stevenson
Juliet Stevenson
Liszt's life was so full of incident that a degree of simplification was necessary, and Lucy Parham's narrative divided into three section - Liszt's youth, the relationship with Countess Marie d'Agoult and the relationship with Princess Caroline Sayne Wittgenstein. The relationship with Marie d'Agoult, who bore Liszt three children, coincided with his years as a touring virtuoso and it was Caroline Sayne Wittgenstein who persuaded him to settle in Weimar and concentrate more on his composition. Both relationships ultimately failed, with Marie d'Agoult tiring of his life as a touring virtuoso and his intensely needy nature (he needed her in the room if he was to work - something which also applied to Caroline Sayn Wittgenstein), whilst Caroline Sayn Wittgenstein's long and ultimately fruitless quest to get her marriage annulled so she could marry Liszt seems to have broken her.

There is something profoundly novelettish about Liszt's personal life, something which Lucy Parham's text brought out with the vivid extracts from contemporary letters, especially some of Liszt's own more self-regarding statements about the spiritual nature of the genius of art, and his adoring women fans. A strength of the performance was that, though there was narration, much of the spoken sections was formed by dialogue between Juliet Stevenson (as Marie d'Agoult and Caroline Sayn Wittgenstein) and Henry Goodman (as Liszt) and the two created a real sense of intimate drama.

But an important complement to this overheated story, was the music. This formed a strong  component of the drama as we heard a different side to Liszt's expression, far removed from his dramatic pronouncements in letters. The result was a rather richer portrait of the composer. Sometimes, Lucy Parham played music which was referred to in the text, such as Liszt's highly sympathetic transcription of a Schubert song. Sometimes there was a direct narrative line, such as with the sparkling brilliance of  Au bord d'une source relating to their stay in Switzerland, or the darkly dramatic Petrarch Sonnet No. 104 from Liszt's period in Italy.

The lovely Chasse-Neige, a complex and dramatic tone poem, formed an apt complement to the drama of Liszt and Caroline's failure to marry, events which were happening at the time Liszt wrote the piece. Lucy Parham did not neglect Liszt's later period, and we heard the pared down and almost aphoristic Am Grabe Richard Wagners as well as the simpler, more stripped down Sancta Dorothea.

Lucy Parham's Liszt was muscular yet poetic, bringing a lovely expressive poetry to the music and a gorgeous sense of the singing line. In the more bravura passages you sensed that she was concerned with being expressive rather than virtuoso clarity in the passage-work. Though Clara Schumann's very negative reaction to Liszt (the man, his music and his playing) was quoted, you rather felt that Lucy Parham had a rather Clara Schumann-esque attitude to the music, being concerned for expressiveness rather than virtuoso display for its own sake.

In fact, not only did we hear from Clara Schumann, we also heard from Hans Christian Anderson who also heard Liszt play and left us a vivid description of the effect of his playing on the contemporary audience.

It was a weakness, I think, not to mention the deaths of two of Liszt's children by Marie d'Agoult in the 1860's (the period when his relationship with Caroline Sayn Wittgenstein was troubled), and we skipped over his problematic relations with his daughter Cosima. But then, Liszt's life is probably material enough for two or three evenings. What Lucy Parham, Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman did give us was a complex portrait of a highly complex man.

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