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This examination of Liszt’s final years is divided into three main parts: Public Actions, Private Utterances and retrospection and Hope. Many of us especially value these years for the forward- looking piano pieces such as La lugubre gondola (two versions) or the Bagatelle without tonality, but Pesce explains that she chose this period largely because it reveals Liszt renouncing his public role as a performer. ‘Having removed … the chief catalyst that enabled critics to focus on his pianistic and ignore his compositional skills, Liszt still continued to fight his battle with the critics (and with himself) about his worth as a composer. The book explores how Liszt grappled with his self-image and its presentation to others in the final stage of his life.’ Because today we have only the music, it is important to be reminded of this conflict, 150 years ago, between Liszt the performer, ecstatically acclaimed, and Liszt the composer, not universally admired. In chapter seven (Compositional Legacy) Pesce emphasises that Liszt’s output between 1877 and 1886 included, in addition to the fascinating late piano pieces, 27 sacred works, most notably the wonderful Via Crucis.

The composer’s relationships with two women during this period – Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein and Olga von Meyendorff – were strongly contrasting. Both were intelligent women but it was Olga in whom Liszt confided his deepest concerns, including even his relationship with Carolyne.

Chapter One is enhanced by many portraits and photographs of Liszt, revealing ‘the way he presented himself to the public as he grew older’. One recurring theme is Liszt’s ‘multiple defense mechanisms’ (belittling himself, pretending not to care, etc) which would come into operation as he prepared himself for a possible bad reception of a major work. Using original sources, Pesce has drawn upon much of the composer’s extensive correspondence in this essential contribution to lisztian scholarship and to our understanding of a complex personality. There are three tables of compositions occupying 33 pages, 85 pages of notes, a ten-page bibliography and, in the final chapter, numerous music examples.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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