When I was about 14 I heard the most amazingly passionate and exciting piece of piano music on the little transistor radio I carried to my ear, while waiting for a bus outside the two apartment blocks entitled ‘Marlo’ and ‘Oberon’. As they were both of 1930s vintage, I have always thought that ‘Marlo’ was really meant to be ‘Merle’ for the block on the left.
What could this exciting piece be? I didn’t have to wait very long, as it was only five minutes long - nothing could have maintained that level of passion and excitement any longer. It was a piece by Liszt, one of his Transcendental Etudes, entitled ‘Wilde Jagd’ . No wonder it wasn’t better known – who could be expected to get their tongue around that heavy Middle-Ages sounding Germanic moniker (much later I discovered that Wilde Jagd, which means wild hunt, or chase, was indeed a Middle Ages tale, and had a much more svelte-sounding title in French - le Chasseur Maudit (‘The Accursed Hunter’), used, among other incarnations, as the subject of a symphonic poem by Cesar Franck.
Franck’s symphonic poem is OK, but nobody does wild excitement like Liszt. The funny thing is the pianist on that radio broadcast I first heard was a very dour, correct and virtuous, but profoundly unexciting player, Jorge Bolet. Cuban, very good, a big reputation for Liszt – but not because he was a Lisztian pianist: you need electricity, a wild streak, and a little dash of craziness helps too, so Horowitz was an ideal Liszt pianist, also Zoltan Kocsis, Marta Argerich. I’m not crazy enough – Chopin sits much more comfortably with me – but I give it a good stab. The reason Jorge Bolet was famous was a) he was a very solid pianist who played much of the standard repertoire of Liszt, and b) he recorded the sound-track of the film Song Without End (the story of Liszt) in 1960, as a last-minute replacement to the disgruntled Jose Iturbi, who had been engaged to do it after the huge success of the sound-track of A Song to Remember (the story of Chopin) in 1945, which Iturbi’s playing had done so much to make such an overwhelming success.
There are two massively contrasting ideas in Wilde Jagd. The opening subject is indeed a furious chase, and it can’t be furious enough. But it’s a chase, on horseback – so it has a definite and very strongly marked rhythm. If you miss this rhythm no-one will know it’s a chase; it’ll just sound like a lot of noise, and not only that, but a struggle for the pianist (you never want that!).
How do you bring out rhythm clearly? Answer: you accent the main beats. That doesn’t mean you play the main beats louder; you have to play all the things around them softer. Horowitz always did this – he had the most electric rhythm, and he created it by playing everything except for the accentuated beats much quieter than you would imagine, and much quieter than anyone else. The accented notes give you an electric jolt every time, and all the other notes are hardly there. Pianissimo. Think of the octaves build-up at the end of the Rachmaninoff Third. Or the Liszt Sonata. Here’s a case where you really have to bring out the accents. Especially on the repeated chords. Full chords can easily become turgid, so keep it light – just bring out the accents. And by accents, I don’t mean accenting the full chord; just accent the top note of the chord in question – the little finger jabbing at the note like a stiletto. Stab that note in the heart with your fifth finger plunging into it as hard as a dagger.
The second subject, in the central episode, is so beautiful and passionate. But don’t lose the momentum. It’s quiet, ‘inward’, as Schumann liked to say, but the music can’t come to a standstill – keep the rhythm going. Liszt gives us a little help in keeping up the momentum – at the same time a nice symphonic-poem touch of orchestration – with a distant rumble in the bass, keeping the syncopated repeated-chord motif from the opening. (Busoni said “Wilde Jagd is a piece of the strongest orchestral colouring”). He also gives us the cross-rhythm of two-against-three between the melody and the rippling accompaniment. Keep the momentum! The music becomes more and more passionate, but the underpinning rhythm must drive the melody. Melody in the top notes (with the stiletto pinky), all else pianissimo, building to mezzo piano, and finally mezzo forte, while the melody in the top is singing its heart out fortissimo.
Recapitulation. The chase is back on, faster and more furious than ever. But it starts pianissimo. That means accented notes pianissimo, everything else hardly there at all. Syncopated repeated chords pianissimo. There’s so much speed at this point that it won’t sound pianissimo whatever you do. If you were playing it even only mezzo-forte it would sound heavy and turgid. There are so many notes crowding on each other at this speed, and you simply must reduce the volume to allow them to be heard. LESS is MORE.
Full blast recapitulation of syncopated chords in C major. Full chords. OK, you can’t reduce the volume here, but do everything you can to keep it rhythmic, and that means stiletto pinky as much as possible, and the accented beats standing out from the rest as much as possible.
Return of the second subject. Orgasmic. As fast as you can. ‘Faster’, as Schumann said. Everything apart from the melody in the top notes piano. At such a speed, you really have to concentrate hard to keep it down to piano, but you must! Bring in the Kocsis wild streak here if you have it. But remember, the quieter you start from, the wilder and more over-the-top you can get.
Last page. Same deal. So many notes, so fast, so loud. But you’ve simply got to keep the rhythm clear and electric. Only way – reduce the volume of all but accented beats.
God I love this piece. I can hear it in my mind as clearly as the day I heard it with Jorge. I think he played it very well: it was a live broadcast - he was on tour in Australia at the time – so it didn’t have that careful quality of his studio recordings. Wild and passionate. But to quote Richard Strauss (in his conducting role): “The hotter the music gets, the cooler your head must be.”