The nationalistic call to arms in European music that occurred in the 19th century was in part announced by Liszt, who came to musical patriotism slowly. In 1838, when still in his 20s, he made noises about getting “into the most backward districts of Hungary, alone, on foot, with a knapsack on my back, in search of folk music.” A lofty idea indeed, but he never made it into the hinterlands, being kept far too busy devastating European audiences with his dazzling pianism. It wasn’t until he had retired from the concert circuit that he began composing things Hungarian. But when he did look to native sources he found almost nothing but the gypsy element and not the true Hungarian folk music, which was unearthed in the early 20th century by the Hungarians Bartók and Kodály.
In true Lisztian fashion, the way in which he exploited gypsy music was expectedly electrifying, extravagantly exhibitionist, and breathtakingly brilliant, a description that applies to the some 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies he composed for piano.
If the Second Hungarian Rhapsody is the best known of the set, it may not be the best; No. 13 was apparently Liszt’s own favorite and No. 6 is distinctive on several counts. Its stately opening and then a bit of temperamental swagger lead to the heart of the matter: a melody in endurance-defying octaves that raises the virtuoso temperature many degrees.
— Orrin Howard, who served the Los Angeles Philharmonic as Director of Publications and Archives for more than 20 years, continues to contribute to the Philharmonic’s program book.