A gratifyingly large percentage of young people made up the Hill Hall audience for this second installment of the UNC Music Department‘s Liszt Festival, celebrating the bicentennial of Franz Liszt’s birth (1811-86). A November 3 recital drew upon the resources of the music students. This concert’s broad sampling of the composer’s work exploited the considerable skills of both the piano and voice faculties. The program was part of the William S. Newman Artists Series.

Newest piano faculty member Clara Yang explored Liszt as both composer and as transcriber. Her choice of Liszt’s transcription of the art song “Widmung” by Robert Schumann (1810-86) linked the program nicely with last year’s Schumann bicentennial. The song dates from 1840, one of Schumann’s most productive years, when his thwarted love for Clara Wieck helped inspire some 168 Lieder. This very famous song features the melody of Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria in the postlude used as homage to Clara. Before playing the piece, Yang said Liszt had preserved some of Schumann’s keyboard accompaniment in the right hand part. Liszt’s Waldesrauschen (Forest Murmurs), the first of two Concert Etudes, reveals the composer’s ability to “paint” a scene in sound, anticipating Impressionism. In both these works, Yang displayed a broad palette of color as well a finely graduated dynamics. Her rippling treble evoked forest murmurs beautifully while the huge cascades of sound lashed the listener with the storm’s fury. This was some pretty impressive piano playing!

Liszt the vocal composer is little represented in the day-to-day round of concerts. The first version of his Tre Sonetti di Petrarca (Three Sonnets of Petrarch) was shared between two pianists and two vocalists. Francesco Petrarch (1304-74), often called the father of humanism, was a cleric, an Italian scholar, a poet, and one of the earliest humanists. The Muse of his love poems, Laura, is believed to have been a married woman known to the poet. No. 104: “Pace non trovo” (I find no peace) was performed by soprano Louise Toppin and pianist Thomas Otten. Toppin sang with a lovely, focused voice that was even across its considerable range from soaring highs to warm, dusky lows. Liszt’s accompaniment is not timid! Otten balanced the piano dynamics skillfully while fully conveying the composer’s intent. An extended solo between the first and second stanzas gave Otten full scope. Toppin’s diction was exemplary.

Tenor Timothy Sparks and pianist Clara Yang shared duties for the last two sonnets, No. 47: “Benedetto sia’lgiorno” (Blessed be the day) and No. 123: “I’vidi in terra angelici costume” (I beheld on earth angelic grace). Sparks sang with a lovely, warm tone and took great care with the words of his texts. Yang’s accompaniment was breathtaking.

Audience members rushed to their seats as they learned “Pause” is not at all like “Intermission.” The concert concluded with Thomas Otten’s playing of three wonderful selections from Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, premiére année: Suisse (Years of Pilgrimage: Switzerland). “Les cloches de Genève” (The Bells of Geneva) begins with a dissonance and features a layering of sounds in an early form of Impressionism, while in “Au lac de Wallenstadt” (At the lake of Wallenstadt), the undulating sounds produced by the left hand evokes the lapping of the waters of the city’s lake as yodeling is suggested in the right hand near the end. At some 15 minutes in length, Vallèe d’Obermann is a miniature tone poem for the piano. “Obermann” is the title of a novel by Etienne Pivert de Senancourt that Liszt admired. Whereas the Nature of the other pieces in Suisse are evoked by “impressionist” suggestions of natural sounds, “Valley of Obermann” is what Louis Kentner in “Solo Piano Music” in Franz Liszt: The Man and His Music edited by Alan Walker calls “nature as seen through the eyes of literature.” Otten held the structure of this work together wonderfully while giving full value to its Romantic passion. His dynamic range was amazing and his care for phrasing, tone, and color were excellent. It was the perfect finish for a fascinating selection of Liszt genius.