8. Liszt: Un Sospiro

Franz Liszt: Concert Etude No. 2: “Un Sospiro,” c. 1848,Grove No. 144.

Listen to the author reading the text

The exhalation of breath, or even its opposite, the breathless inhalation, are the themes of Liszt’s sigh, or “sospiro.”

Notes rushing up and down imitate those intakes and outtakes of air. Soft breezes or settling summer evenings are the lyre, the harp, on which the vast gamut of the piano, the arpeggio, or harpeggio, is suddenly suspended, like a held breath. In fact, the melody evolves naturally from the top note of each breath, rising naturally out of the energy which enfolds it the way a pearl surrounds a piece of dirt.

The melody is a little breathless, as if the pianist runs out of breath after each exhausting phrase and doesn’t have enough legato left to spare for that poor afterthought of a motif, making the rise and fall of the accompaniment at least as important as the theme, a kind of teamwork, or theme work.

As much as flashy July fireworks, Liszt’s quiescent, longing “sigh” is a hand-crossing study, so that the noisy left hand crosses over the busily rushing right to play a leafy note, then rushes back down into the depths to confirm the forest setting.

The right hand has its own agenda, crossing over the speeding left to play notes on the far side of the body so that the pianist appears to have his arms on backwards. This show continues to the very end, where I play the lowest note with the right hand, and the top note with the left. Liszt wrote a cadenza and a different ending later, both of which intrude on the inevitability of the piece, although the pianist Louis Kentner preferred them.

Liszt has marked the melody with staccato dots which in performance are harsh and modern, so most musicians prefer to see the dots as stress marks and in fact play the theme quite contradictorily portamento, that is, in a very linked way over the rushing arpeggios.

This is one explanation at least for the staccato marks over the melody. Another might be that the upward rush of notes to the melody dictates a sort of subtle emphasis marked by a dot, rather than a long mark, which would have demanded a less subtle emphasis of the melody, and Liszt was trying to whisper.

Certainly the hands are so busy that they have no time for the melody, and the brusque touch of fingers busily crossing may have been something Liszt wanted to emphasize: to stress the difficulty, not the ease. As Rubinstein said of Mozart: too simple for children, too difficult for virtuosi. Perhaps the current modesty of making hard pieces seem simple is a disservice to difficult pieces.

When I was at music camp, where my parents sent me in error one exciting summer, whenever anyone heard anything impressive from a practice room they said it must be either the best pianist in camp playing something complicated in a simple way, or me, embroidering something simple.