On the evening of February 29 in UNC-CH’s Hill Hall Auditorium, Thomas Otten, head of the University’s piano/keyboard division, treated his all-too-sparse audience (made up largely of his students, other pianists, and a few others – including Maxine Swalin – who knew they were in for a treat) to a trial run of the program he presented on March 4 at the 2004 Convention of the American Liszt Society at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. The printed program for the evening was a single sheet with the list of the titles of the original compositions and their composers with their life dates and the artist’s bio on the reverse. Dates of composition of the transcriptions should have been included to make the chronologies complete. Otten gave eloquent and excellent oral commentaries on each of the Liszt transcriptions and paraphrases, focusing on his handling of the original material as well as on the performance techniques necessary to render them.

Otten announced that this was his first recital devoted exclusively to a single composer and his first devoted to a single compositional type, both occasioned, of course, by the aforementioned upcoming presentation. Liszt wrote approximately 200 transcriptions ranging from operas to art songs, symphonies, and other piano compositions. They vary in style from faithful transpositions of the material that remain fairly literal to completely free, not to say free-wheeling reworkings that are really entirely new works. Otten indicated that the program of seven works would offer a sampling of both types.

He opened with “Senta’s Ballad” from Wagner’s Die Fliegende Holländer ( The Flying Dutchman ), dating from 1872, chosen, he said, because that was the first opera he ever saw. A ballad is a narrative, hence fairly straightforward, but the work ends with a heroic flourish. This was followed by three Lieder: Schumann’s “Widmung” (“Dedication”) from 1848, probably the most popular and well known of all the song transcriptions, and a favorite of former Peace College pianist Ray Kilburn; Mendelssohn’s “Auf Flügeln des Gesanges” (“On Wings of Song”) from 1840, whose melody is played by the alternating thumbs in a kind of technical challenge to the pianist; and Schumann’s “Frühlingsnacht” (“Spring Night”) from 1872. These are perhaps more faithful to the original source than some of the more elaborate transcriptions, but they are all longer than the originals, primarily through repetition of portions, one of them tripling the original length, and most modify the ambiance of the original, often by making it more “Romantic” or more lush.

Otten followed these with the Concert Paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto from 1867. A paraphrase is, as its title indicates, a retelling in summary of the model’s themes. This was for Liszt more elaborate and freer than a transcription but perhaps less evolved and wide-ranging than the works he called “Fantaisies” or Fantasies – Liszt always used the French spelling – which were not represented on the program. The Rigoletto paraphrase uses the music from the Act III quartet and is a dazzling piece.

Next up was Isolde’s Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde , also from 1867. The story behind this as told by Otten was quite complex and curious. The Liszt work was published before the opera, and the music that inspired the transcription came from the end of the opera in a section its composer referred to as the “Verklärung”; for Wagner, the “Liebestod” was an earlier section. Liszt remained obstinate against Wagner (Liszt was his father-in-law, it will be remembered) concerning the title – and prevailed. Among the opera transcriptions, this is one of the more faithful ones.

The evening closed with another of the most famous and most elaborate transcriptions (not to mention most difficult, due to the steady increasing of its tempo), the 1831-32 “La Campanella,” No. 3 of the Grandes Etudes de Paganini , inspired not by the latter’s Op. 1 Caprices, as were the other études, but by an earlier violin concerto. This is a real showpiece and is in fact Liszt’s homage to his violinist counterpart and equivalent. It made for a spectacular conclusion.

Otten did not demonstrate any of Liszt’s reputed or purported flamboyance or piano-destruction techniques, but he showed plenty of the composer’s legendary prodigiousness required for the execution of these works. There were no noticeable slip-ups in this trial run; convention-goers should have been duly impressed, as were we.