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From a Historic Piano Duel to a Finger-Blurring New Album

What were the origins of the album?

A lot of people seem to think, quite naturally, that it came about because of the famous Liszt and Thalberg duel. But no, though it does contain work featured in that duel. For a long time, I wanted to do a disc of Liszt operatic transcriptions, and I also wanted to explore Thalberg. But the more I studied Thalberg and his transcriptions, the less successful they seemed to me. A lot of his opera transcriptions aren’t held together well; these on the album [the “Mosè” and a fantasy on Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”] are his two successes by a good margin.

So I stuck to what I knew of Liszt; I did “Hexaméron” at the 92nd Street Y in 2007, and [Bellini’s] “Norma” and [Verdi’s] “Ernani” I’ve been playing forever. He was more successful than Thalberg as an architect; he knew how to shape works of this kind from beginning to end. There are only a few examples of Liszt rambling. I thought it best stylistically to stick to Italian opera, for homogeneity, or I could have added his arrangement of the “Faust” waltz [originally written by Gounod], the “Liebestod” [Wagner] and, if I was very brave, the “Tannhäuser” overture [Wagner again].

Is there still a prejudice against what’s been perceived as Liszt’s empty-headed bombast?

Liszt has been pooh-poohed a lot — for his overt virtuosity, I guess. I can’t think of a better word, but virtuosity should be something very positive. Maybe he’s been criticized for his excessive writing. But I think that anybody who hurls that criticism at Liszt should do that at Paganini, too, don’t you think? But virtuosity has always been considered part and parcel of violin playing and not of the piano — even though Liszt was the greater musician. If you take the time to really look at Liszt’s writing and his accomplishments, he practically gave us the symphonic poem. He is at the root of the harmonic explosions of the 20th century; Liszt and Wagner really started it all.

But Liszt has been polarizing. I have copies of the old Urania records that my dad had of the symphonic poems, the “Dante” and “Faust” symphonies, and he used to just wear those out. He was a little militant about Liszt. But then I have a friend who was a concert presenter in Montreal who really, really did not like Liszt; he thought all of it was a circus. Except every year he put on a performance of the “Via Crucis.” He loved late Liszt; it was stripped of the excess, stripped to its essentials.

The unavoidable question: How are you doing in this crazy time?

Like all of my colleagues, or most, there’s been a colossal loss of income. My wife and I had to have recourse to loans, which have kept us afloat. Happily, there are some concerts on the horizon. If I’m admitted at the border, I have the first two and a half weeks of October playing in Europe. That’s really encouraging.

And I do have a recital on Sept. 25 near Montreal, with an audience. It’s the Lanaudière Festival; they made up a mini festival with five events, and I’m one of them. It’s in a town called Joliette, and the concert was relocated to the cathedral. I’m including two pieces by Enescu, a chorale and a “carillon nocturne,” which is very interesting, especially considering it was written by someone who is not known for his pianistic production. It’s nothing but harmonics effects, and in a church, it’ll be perfect.

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