History was made on 8 March 2014, with the début appearance of Lisztomanias International Association in Goa. One of its many laudable objectives is to create a new international festival (The Euro-Asian Romantic Music International Festival) and one hopes that Goa becomes the jewel of its Asian crown. I have long felt that Goa is fertile ground for classical music festivals just like this, with their fringe-benefits of workshops, masterclasses and coaching for our youth. I’ve said this to stake-holders in government, the tourism and hospitality industry, and to friends like Furtados who already have their robust annual Con Brio festival in Mumbai.
Marouan Benabdallah can probably rack up frequent flier miles for his trips to Goa, and each time he visits, he gives us a concert that lingers in the memory long after he has left. This was the first time he performed at the recently-refurbished Menezes Braganza hall, and it highlighted the challenges facing the health and very survival of classical music in Goa. The fact that Benabdallah had got the piano ‘miked up’ and let the audience decide whether it sounded better with or without amplification underscored the severe dearth of concert venues with flattering acoustics in Goa. Secondly, despite the room being air-conditioned and the outward-facing French windows presumably being double-glazed, the boom-boom of the accursed pleasure cruise-boats still bled through. It is an indicator of just how high the volume is turned up on the boats that the noise can penetrate even a sealed room.
Claude Debussy of his own admission loved pictures “almost as much as music.” Even his manuscripts reflect this passion, with the notes neat and delicate, perfectly and tastefully placed. Both his loves are beautifully intertwined in his Estampes (‘Woodcuts’) in three movements: Pagodes (Pagodas), Soirée dans Grenade (Evening in Granada), and Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the rain). Benabdallah’s playing was technically secure, elegantly bringing out the whirlwind riot of harmonic colours, and light and shade in each, with judicious use of the pedal. Soirée dans Grenade has the rhythmic lilt of a habanera, and was much admired by Manuel de Falla: “There is not even one measure of this music borrowed from the Spanish folklore, and yet the entire composition in its most minute details, conveys admirably Spain.”
Benabdallah’s next work was Franz Liszt’s Soirées de Vienne, Valse Caprice no. 6 from a set of nine modeled on various waltzes by Schubert. These are anything but literal transcriptions of the original music, with Liszt adding interludes or transitions, changing harmonies, creating passages that imitate the original material, and expanding on or changing other details. It is perhaps better termed a paraphrase, where the music is still Schubert’s but with Lisztian calling-cards everywhere.
This was followed by Liszt’s Consolation no. 3 (Lento placido) in D flat major, the most popular of a set of six poetic thoughts (Six Pensées poétiques) for solo piano in the musical style of Chopin Nocturnes. We then had a straight run of several transcriptions by Liszt of the works of other composers: Liebesbotschaft (‘Message of Love’) from Schwanengesang (Swan Song), a posthumous collection of Schubert’s songs; Wiosna (Spring), one of Six Polish songs by Frédéric Chopin; Widmung(Dedication), a love song from Robert Schumann to his wife Clara from his song cycle Myrthe (‘Myrtles’, which in Germany were uses as bridal wreaths); and La Campanella (little bell), Liszt’s transcription of the last movement of Niccolò Paganini’s second violin concerto. Benabdallah is a true Lisztian, and all the praise showered on him by reviewers worldwide is well-deserved. He has virtuosity in spades, but is always elegant, stylistically true, never flash for its own sake. La Campanella stood out not only because of its familiar tune, but for its obvious pianistic demands. It is meant to be an étude, but in true Lisztian fashion is brimming with musicality, unlike a conventional study. The right hand has to jump huge intervals, sometimes even two whole octaves within the timespan of a sixteenth note. The mimicking of the handbell allowed Liszt to exploit the then-new Érard piano’s double escapement (or repetition action, where a key could be sounded repeatedly in quick succession without being completely released) to the full. One can just imagine the ‘wow’ factor for nineteenth-century audiences. Benabdallah succeeded in wowing us as well with his dazzling brilliance, and it is small wonder he chose it as his second encore piece.
The highlight for me was the mighty, rarely-performed Sonata no. 1 in D minor by Sergei Rachmaninov. It was originally inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s tragic play, Faust, and although Rachmaninov abandoned the idea soon after beginning composition, traces of this influence can still be found in this three-movement work. Rachmaninov originally wished it to be a ‘program’ sonata based on the main characters of the play: Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles In fact, it almost mirrors Liszt’s own Faust Symphony which is also made of three movements which reflect those characters. Rachmaninov was one of the greatest pianists of his own time, and his piano music has great technical insight. Benabdallah’s playing had solid key-deep fingerwork, penetrating sonority and full-bodied chords that the music demands, and use of rubato that was tasteful but not schmaltzy or self-indulgent.
Benabdallah’s first encore offering was a Women’s Day special, with a Hungarian theme: Schubert’s Mélodie Hongroise D 817. There is a feminine angle in that it was composed during the summers spent by the composer teaching the Esterhazy daughters Marie and Karoline in Zseliz what is today Slovakia. It is believed he fell madly in love with Karoline. It is certainly an inspired work, a charming Hungarian-imbued cameo salon piece.
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 11 March 2014)