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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

LINES OF ENQUIRY | To Hell and Back: Canadian Premiere of Piano-Four-Hands Arrangement of Liszt's Dante Symphony Timely, Poignant

By Curtis Perry on October 30, 2014

Jamie Parker Photo: Shin Sugino
Jamie Parker Photo: Shin Sugino

Suffice to say, it has been a long and tumultuous week in Ottawa. For some here in the nation’s capital, it was recently capped off with a remarkably timely and well-executed rendition of Liszt’s Lenore and the Dante Symphony.

CBC host and evening emcee Laurence Wall asked the audience to stand for a moment of silence for the events transpiring in Ottawa last week. That Nathan Cirillo is of Italian descent was noted, and furthered the associative feeling in the well-attended Kailash Mital Theatre at Carleton University, hosting a diverse audience of some three hundred and fifty gathered as part of a symposium weekend celebrating the life and legacy of Franz Liszt. Presented in collaboration with the Italian Embassy, the Italian Cultural Institute in Montreal, the Dante Aligheri Society of Ottawa, and the 14th Annual International Week of the Italian Language, it was a tightly collaborative affair both organizationally and artistically.

Luciano Bertoli provided deft, inspired narration of Gottfried August Bürger’s Lenore and Liszt’s selections of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, with Jamie Parker and Mauro Bertoli (no relation) performing the premiere of a four-hands-piano arrangement of the work by one of Liszt’s students. This paring back of instrumentation only served to reinforce the elder Bertoli’s impassioned rhetoric, and underscored the beauty of the concluding Magnificat (indicative of Dante’s Paradise), supported by Caroline Léonardelli’s harp and the Carleton University Women’s Chorus, enveloping the audience from the back of the venue. Parker’s strong, convincing dynamics meshed beautifully Bertoli’s nuanced playing on the treble side, effectively interplaying with the narrator’s verse. As in opera, one need not have been fluent in the language to be fully affected by its rhetorical meaning – although I may have left with a sudden desire to pick up a new language.

The symphony – which stretches the conventional definition of the term, by any measure, being more a musical accompaniment to the text – was at least one of the first to make use of progressive tonality, beginning in one key and ending in another, predating its use by Mahler by some forty years. For its 1856 premiere, Liszt had originally hoped to have a simultaneous projection of paintings by Giovanni Buonaventura Genelli, an Italian/German painter. Though this idea had to be scrapped, as it was cost prohibitive, this original plan was presented at this performance. The decision to overlay the text in a contemporaneous English translation was a bit curious, but didn’t necessarily detract from the overall presentation. Indeed, Genelli’s paintings held the text and sound together in a continuously immersive atmosphere, befitting the high Romantic style.

It was a cathartic, all too appropriate piece that resonated both in the space of the theater and the heart. The premiere of the four-hands-piano arrangement was an especially judicious choice, permitting more focus on the narrator. In many ways, the Dante Symphony as a multimedia work was well ahead of its time, anticipating the advantage of relatively modern affordances such as amplification and projectors.

Canonically, Liszt’s larger-scale compositions may not be especially popular, but culturally situated as it was both in the context of the symposium weekend and in our broader collective conscience this week, it was especially well understood at this performance. Its pianists, harpist, women’s chorus, – perhaps most of all, its narrator – all brought this to bear brilliantly, as the progression from manic tritons of the Inferno progressively gave way to the orderliness of the Magnificat setting offered a way forward, as per Alighieri’s original intent, for the troubled mind.

Curtis Perry

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Ludwig Van Toronto

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