At least 150 pianists from Indonesia and several other countries, including Singapore, Germany, Australia, South Korea and China, participated in the Bali International Open Piano Competition, which ended on Sunday (24/09). (JG Photo/Tunggul Wirajuda)

Tinkling the Ivories With Liszt

JANUARY 13, 2015

Italian pianist Michele Campanella went through the intricate notes of Franz Lizst’s “Four Mephisto Waltzes” with abandon, leaving the audience at Jakarta’s Usmar Ismail Hall spellbound.

The 67-year-old brought out the piece’s range of emotions, which vary from exuberant sentiments like joy and merriment, to darker feelings like hysteria and obsession. 

Inspired by the old German legend of Faust, its schizophrenic strains recount a passage where the demon Mephistopheles tempts the protagonist to seduce a woman during a village ball. 

“It epitomizes Lizst’s music, as it covers a spectrum of emotions and sounds,” said Campanella, who is renowned as one of the leading interpreters of Lizst’s music today.

“While beauty and grace form a big part of his music, he also won’t hesitate to go into the darker, aggressive, and even demonic aspects.

“As one of the leading 19th-century Romantic musicians, Lizst’s music is sentimental, and he wears his heart on his sleeve. It is also full of feeling and accessible to audiences, even as many of his compositions are underappreciated or neglected by people uneasy at its darker sides.”

Campanella’s rendition of “Four Mephisto Waltzes” formed part of his recent recital in Jakarta. Presented by the Italian Embassy in Jakarta and the EMMA, or Euro Mediterranean Music Academy for Peace, the show marks the 65th anniversary of Indonesian-Italian relations.

“Campanella’s show is designed to start off [the festivities] on a high note,” said Italian Cultural Institute director Michela Linda Magri. “Because we have a lot of programs lined up for this year, among them performances, cultural exhibitions and a movie retrospective, its only natural that we start off with the best in their field.”

Campanella lived up to his billing by beginning the evening with Frederic Chopin’s “Ballade No. 3 in A Flat Major, Opus 47.”

The Vincenzo Vitale Conservatory of Naples alumnus weaved through the piece’s tender and reticent, yet ardent character, showing in more ways than one the qualities that made its composer a renowned “musical poet.”

Campanella proved this with his take on the Polish maestro’s “Three Waltzes Opus 34.” Its opening piece, the “Waltz in A Flat Major No. 1” started off with exuberant fanfare, before winding down to its dreamy middle section and heading into the coda that brought it to its end.

Campanella’s virtuosity is more apparent here, as he gave more room for flourishes, yet effortlessly glided through its more challenging notes.

The second and third movements, the “Waltz in A Minor, Opus 34 No. 2” and “Waltz in F Major, Opus 34 No. 3,” contrasted from the previous waltz because of their slower, statelier and more contemplative tone.

However, Campanella skillfully brought out the two pieces’ inherently deep, strong emotions with a touch and feel that can only come from countless hours of improvisation.  

He then threw discretion to the wind with his take on Chopin’s “Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Opus 23.” Campanella unabashedly brought emotions to the fore, as shown through his boldness in hitting its formidable notes.

Written between 1831 and 1835, the number is ahead of its time, as its improvisational touch and rolling rhythms on the piano seem to presage jazz music by about a hundred years.

Self-contained and absorbed in the music, Campanella’s playing style went a long way in introducing the audience to the world and musical vision of the 19th-century Romantics.

“Chopin and Liszt might have been contemporaries and friends. But even then, the differences in their musical outlook were apparent in their lifetime, an element that I highlighted in the show by contrasting musical forms,” he said.

“Chopin’s music contrast with Liszt’s moodiness because of its beauty, poetic lyricism and grace, making them iconic and popular for repertoires in its time until the present day. But since both wear their hearts on their sleeve, they remain accessible to music lovers, as their work isn’t as complicated as early 20th-century classic music.”

In addition to the aforementioned “Four Mephisto Waltzes,” Campanella took on Liszt’s stature as an icon of 19th-century Romantic music with his take on the Hungarian maestro’s “Ballade No. 1 in D Minor.” 

Featuring heavy bass notes in its opening, the somber start soon gave way to a certain measure of levity, before emphasizing on heavy notes to leave a palpable air of emotional tension.

Campanella displayed the virtuosity which won him three Grand Prix du Disque awards, the latest one of which he received in 1998 for his recording “Franz Liszt — The Great Transcriptions I-II.”

Campanella showed that he had more than Chopin and Liszt up his sleeve, as he revisited Faust with a piano take on a waltz from Charles Gounod’s eponymous 1859 opera. While the music flows along with birdlike trills to its lively, exuberant finale, the piece’s hysterically sinister undertone nevertheless evokes Faust’s deal with Mephistopheles and other dealings with the dark side. 

He then closed off on a lighthearted note with his take on the Mozart classic “Ah vous dirai-je maman,” immortalized in children’s songs like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “the Alphabet Song.” 

Aside from highlighting variations of the piece, Campanella captured its sense of childlike wonder and its more plaintive side, characteristics that have made the composition beloved since it was written by Mozart in 1781.

“I added Gounod and Mozart to the repertoire to highlight the piano’s versatility as an instrument. Unlike other instruments like oboes or flutes that have only one characteristic or color, the piano has many colors, enabling it to improvise, which is an indispensable element when playing piano pieces by Liszt, Chopin and other composers,” said Campanella, a veteran pianist with more than 50 years of experience under his belt.

“That universality is what drew me to EMMA and its message of peace. Music and peace are interconnected; where there is music there is peace.”

EMMA founder and president Paolo Petrocelli agreed.

“Campanella was the first to join EMMA since its formation in 2010. His standing as a veteran musician made him uniquely suited to its work in ‘music diplomacy’ between Europe and the Middle East,” Petrocelli said.

“He is one of 50 musicians in EMMA, alongside Markus Stockhausen and Hiba al Kawas, who hold shows and workshops like a workshop for refugees in Jordan, Egypt and Morocco. EMMA also works closely with the United Nations and UNHCR, since they are the agencies that work closely with the refugees.”

But regardless of whether Campanella shows his virtuosity before a concert hall or easing the hardships of refugees displaced by conflicts in Palestine or Syria, there’s little doubt his music will carry a long way.