Liszt: Sonata, Ballades & Polonaises
The restraint of the abstract did not come easily for Liszt. He was by nature a storyteller, a man of the stage, a theatrical prophet who burned to communicate a poetic-romantic vision. But the stage was not set for an opera in his case: rather, it is Liszt himself who is the character, the subject, the performance.
The vast majority of his works bear descriptive titles. As Noah naming his animals, or as Santa Claus wrapping even the most modest gifts in shimmering paper, Liszt imposed the flourish of an appellation to most of his pieces. Etudes became a 'Wild Chase' or 'Evening Harmonies'; nocturnes became 'Dreams of Love'; waltzes were 'melancholy', 'Mephistophelian', or even 'forgotten'. But when it came to his sole work in sonata form ... nothing; merely, 'Grande Sonate pour le pianoforte par F Liszt'.
Just over a hundred years before, and just under a hundred miles away from where Liszt was living in Weimar, a mass was written in the same B minor key. It was Bach's only known complete work in that form. That the Lutheran from Leipzig would not write many masses is understandable, but that Liszt, a man of such manifold talent, energy and years, would write only one sonata is puzzling. However, it is significant that the one he wrote is a masterpiece, and that he took great care in its construction (evident in the many pastings-over and corrections in the manuscript). It is the work which proves beyond all doubt that Liszt's compositional genius was not just that of the inventor, the innovator, the elaborator - but that of the supreme architect as well.