Showdown: Liszt vs. Enescu

The Contestants:

Franz Liszt


Franz Liszt was the greatest pianist of his generation, a renowned composer, and one hell of a nice guy.  His contributions to the symphonic poem influence composers to this day.  They just renamed the Budapest Airport after him.

Georges Enescu


George Enescu was a composer, conductor, violinist, and explorer of folk music.  The list of his violin students is mighty impressive (Menuhin, Grumiaux, Haendel, Ferras).  The village in Romania where he is born is now called George Enescu.

The Rep:



A Rhapsody is an episodic, free-flowing work that does not necessarily adhere to any formal structures.  It is a favorite compositional style of the Romantic period, as unrequited love and tragic heroism also do not follow any formal structures.

The Showdown:

Liszt wrote 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano, six of which were arranged for orchestra by Franz Doppler with revisions by Liszt himself.  The most famous of the bunch is the Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2.  Enescu wrote two Romanian Rhapsodies for orchestra, the Romanian Rhapsody no. 1 being the more popular one.  This will essentially be a BCS-type clash between #1 and #2.  Continuing in the spirit of the BCS, Alfven’s sublime Swedish Rhapsody #3 has legitimate complaints about its omission from the contest and may file an antitrust lawsuit.

The Case for Liszt

Hungary has a tricky history, from the Magyars to partial occupation by the Ottomans to the Habsburg Monarchy to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to a member of the Soviet Bloc to just plain-ass Hungary.  There has always been a deep connection in the cultural and political realms to the rest of Europe, but Hungary has always had fiercely unique traditional folk music and dance.  Liszt modeled his Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 on the csardas, a traditional dance that is generally characterized by two contrasting sections, one slow (the lassu) and one fast (the friss).  The lassu features a theme that encapsulates Hungary’s folk tradition in one fell swoop: brooding and ponderous but then shifting on a dime into elegant and graceful:

The friss begins mysteriously with fluttering winds hovering like a mist in an alternating pattern of F-sharp minor and C-sharp major before slipping into C-sharp minor that is so hypnotically obsessive that it needs exposure and response therapy.  The music builds with tremendous rhythmic energy and an increasingly frenetic tempo into one of the most famous melodies in all of music:

A theme in the clarinets that is equal parts seductive and cunning bridges the gap between the main friss section and the brief conclusion.  The strings race to the end, joined by the remaining forces of the orchestra in a frantic chase that leads to three powerful chords and one final splash:

The Case for Enescu

The history of Romania is perhaps even trickier than Hungary’s.  The historical evolution of the country from being populated largely by the Slavs, Byzantines, Ottomans, and Magyars to a much heavier influence from Western Europe (especially France) can be traced in their musical heritage.  Throw in a healthy dash of Gypsy culture and you have all the ingredients for a fascinating musical heritage.  Enescu also used traditional Romanian folk music in his Rhapsody, beginning with a tentative tune in the clarinet and oboe based on the song “I have a coin, and I want a drink” which Enescu likely encountered through his studies with the Gypsy violinist Lae Chioru:

In much the same vein as the Liszt Rhapsody above, Enescu’s picks up a head of steam in the middle section, with the basses leading the charge underneath frenzied trills and mordents in the violins, the music growing ever more insistent until it finally erupts into a glistening sheen of A Major:

The coda serves as a brilliant microcosm of the entire piece: playfully timid and sultry, pick up speed like a runaway train, explode in a giant starburst of sound.  The melody is particularly exotic sounding, the kind that will stick in your head for a month if you’re not careful:

The Winner:

You really can’t go wrong here.  This is like having your choice between Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz: if you can possibly negotiate a three-way, you do it, but ultimately you’re, and I quote Charlie Sheen here, WINNING!  I’m a total sucker for the Enescu, and have the amazing Dorati recording in every format I can conceive of (CD, LP, mp3, whatever).  But it’s hard to argue with the versatility of the Liszt; it works really well in its orchestral guise, and it’s far and away the most entertaining way to spend 10 minutes at the piano.  Now, who can put me in touch with the agents for Ms. Hayek and Ms. Cruz?

Franz Liszt


 Franz Liszt, Champion

Special bonus: Another point in favor of Liszt is clearly this video:

I’m only marginally embarrassed to admit that I thought the performance was quite good until the complete loss of accuracy, pace, and soul in the last 30 seconds.  Very characterful up to that point…and really including that point, if the character is Anakin Skywalker right before he goes to the Dark Side.


One thought on “Showdown: Liszt vs. Enescu

  1. Pingback: Something cool you might have missed: Swedish Rhapsody no. 3 by Hugo Alfven « Everything But The Music

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