The Franz Liszt bicentennial, which still has a couple of months to go, has been an opportunity to once again cast the composer as a host of familiar personae: Liszt the diabolical piano wizard, Liszt the proto-modernist innovator, Liszt the 19th-century rock star. But in his recital at Boston Conservatory on Tuesday, the Ukranian-American pianist Mykola Suk posited a Liszt that was ultimately too singular for any category.
Suk indulged Liszt the showman, plunging through the Hungarian Rhapsodies nos. 12 and 3 (the latter an encore, along with the F-minor Transcendental Etude). Suk’s tone manages to be both sinewy and ductile, a steely touch that seems to land on felt. He approaches the music with thoughtful athleticism, throwing himself into virtuosic passages with abandon. (Much of the concert’s fun was the persistent sense of a performance without a net.) His rubato has a precipitous quality, phrases tumbling forth, churning up momentum. And he uses a liberal amount of pedal, building up a translucent mass of resonance.
The pedaling brought out Liszt’s sheer unconventionality. Much has been made of Liszt’s revolutionary technique, but it was his conception of sound that was most radical. In Suk’s hands (and feet), Liszt’s more unconventional effects pushed beyond music: the bells-through-the-fog opening of “Funérailles,’’ the boomy haze of arpeggiation in “Les cloches de Genève.’’ The speed and blur of Suk’s thunder and rumble created heavy, rolling clouds of sound; at other times, a glistering buzz. The peak was Suk’s performance of the Fantasia quasi Sonata, “Après une lecture du Dante,’’ massive in conception, range, and timbre, Romantic musical daring crossing over into pure sound art.
The program offered historical contrasts both modern - “Dedication to Franz Liszt,’’ by Suk’s fellow Ukranian Valentin Silvestrov, a pair of neo-Romantic miniatures tailored to the pianist’s talent for crystalline mists - and vintage, the “Fantasie’’ on Rossini’s opera “Moses’’ by Liszt’s rival Sigismond Thalberg. The contrast didn’t so much demonstrate Liszt’s superiority - Thalberg’s “Fantasie’’ proved a refined entertainment on its own terms - but just how atypical Liszt was. Thalberg’s music is a grand, bravura amplification of classical technique; Liszt’s sounds like the piano idiosyncratically evolving into an entirely new species. Suk’s version of Liszt was, it turns out, very much like the devil, at least in George Bernard Shaw’s telling: dreaming things that never were, and asking “why not?’’
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.