Initial PR centered on Mayron Tsong, the splendid pianist who left UNC last year for the University of Maryland, who was to be a teaching artist in residence at the EMF for about a week. The all-Liszt program, marking the bicentennial of the composer’s birth, was to have been part of the festival’s Friends and Great Performers Series. The program book gave the venue as the Carnegie Room in Hege Library. But as it happened, the concert involved four of EMF’s master artist-teachers, and it took place in Dana Auditorium, where two beautiful grand pianos, provided by Piedmont Music Center, were on hand for what might well have counted as this year’s Steinway Gala. Sadly, the place was at best a third full for a concert that ought to have shaken all the keyboard fanatics from their hiding places for at least a hundred miles in every direction.

The artists included Tsong plus three remarkable long-time EMF pedagogues – James Giles, Yoshikazu Nagai, and Gideon Rubin. From the stage, Giles introduced the program – a good thing, since the handout for the evening was printed in minuscule type that had many patrons grumbling well before the concert began. (The details were given in larger type in the season program book, but two of the bios were missing there. Alas, one bio was nonetheless truncated in the handout, and those parts were in the same virtually illegible font size as the works list….) Documentation was scanty, too, so in the comments that follow we’ll provide the Searle numbers so readers may look up any of the works that may have appealed to them.

Giles got things underway with three selections from the first of the Years of Pilgrimage, S.160, a volume devoted to Switzerland. These were Nos. 2-4, “Au lac de Wallenstadt,” “Pastorale,” and the well-known “Au bord d’une Source,” a fairly frequent encore piece. These began softly and gently and probably surprised listeners who expected virtuosic bombast from this composer. Giles follow-on group, devoted to the wonderful but rarely-heard Ballade No. 2, S.171 (composed in memory of Chopin and presumably based on his better-known models) was remarkable for its variety and the inventive musical and harmonic territory it covered – and Giles gave an exceptional performance, too, earning the enthusiastic response he engendered.

Nagai brought the first half to a close with two intensely familiar selections – Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s Lied “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (D.118 in the Schubert listing, S.558, No. 8, in Searle), and then the “Mephisto Waltz No. 1,” or “Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke,” S.514, to provide its proper title. These readings were more in keeping with what many of us perceive to be “classic Liszt,” which is to say they were dramatic, brisk, and brilliant to the point of virtuosic. The first section of the Waltz may have been a shade too fast, for the playing seemed a bit uneven here and there, but the artist recovered and was warmly applauded for his efforts.

Rubin selected one of Liszt’s best-known operatic transcriptions, the one devoted to Verdi’s Rigoletto. It’s called a “Paraphrase de concert,” it bears the catalog number of S.434, and it is a rarity in Liszt in that it’s basically a pianistic elaboration of a single, relatively brief snippet from the opera, the beloved quartet  “Bella figlia dell’amore,” albeit one that would make even leather-lunged opera singers gasp for breath. This performance was brilliant, too, and Rubin earned every second of his ovation.

And then Mme. Tsong arrived on stage to play what was certainly the evening’s rarest offering – the “Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude,” the third of a big set of ten works titled Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (Poetic and Religious Harmonies), S.173. This reminded us that Liszt came honestly by his Catholic beliefs (despite his at times shocking personal behavior) – this work may be seen as a lengthy (19-minute) prayer disguised as an intensely personal and consistently meditative piano solo that sometimes seems almost improvisatory. (I can’t imagine memorizing it – Tsong played it from the score.) Certainly it foreshadows some of the extreme flights of pianistic fantasy that make his late works so challenging – and that in turn pointed the way to some of our more radical early 20th-century composers. That this collection was completed by 1852, when Liszt was still relatively young, makes the “Bénédiction” seem all the more remarkable. The performance was revelatory.

The Second Hungarian Rhapsody, S.244/2, was then given in an arrangement for two pianos, eight hands. The place went wild, finally eliciting the obligatory encore that no gang of pianists seems able to escape – Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes…,” with the show-off bits played in varying stages of sitting, standing, and sort of in between contortions, always allowing for someone to operate the pedals. More whoops and cheers. Yippee!

The EMF continues through July 30. For details, see our calendar or the presenter’s website.