Any classical music nerd worth his or her salt can tell you that the composer Franz Liszt is best-known for writing fiendishly difficult piano music, and that he was a piano virtuoso of rock-star stature during his lifetime. (Only and über-music-nerd would have gone so far as to sit through the 1975 film, Lisztomania featuring Roger Daltrey. I can’t give it a thumbs-up, but it is an interesting cultural curiosity!)
Less widely known is Liszt’s extensive catalog of songs for voice with piano accompaniment. But that will change if countertenor Yakov Zamir has anything to say about it. Zamir has embarked on a project of performing and recording Liszt’s songs with Janice Weber, critically acclaimed pianist and Liszt specialist.
Zamir and Weber are performing this evening in Boston, along with fellow Liszt enthusiasts, sopranos Farah Darliette Lewis and Meena Malik, and pianists Artem Belgurov and Rachel Hassinger.
Miss Music Nerd asked him for the scoop, and he was gracious enough to answer a few questions.
MMN: Your voice type is countertenor, but your voice quality is different from the non-vibrato, baroque sound typically associated with that. How would you describe your voice?
YZ: I’m classified as a countertenor because that is the range I sing in. It describes a male voice in the contralto range, that is, topping out a fourth or fifth higher than a tenor.
I sing with vibrato just about all the time – that is the natural voice production when you want to fill a large space and carry over an orchestra. Lots of countertenors sing with vibrato now, so my voice is not unique in that way. But my voice is an expression of my soul, my personality, and since I am unique, my voice is also unique!
MMN: How did you become interested in the vocal music of Franz Liszt?
YZ: I discovered it while living in Israel, around twenty years ago. In a music library, whilst collecting songs by various composers, I happened upon his Tre Sonetti di Petrarca. I liked them so much that I sang them on a 6-city recital tour I made of India, in 1992, and then sang them also in London and in Tel-Aviv and elsewhere in Israel.
I wanted to sing lots of Schumann during the bicentennial of his birth, in 2010, and then I realized that 2011 is Liszt’s bicentennial year. I made a plan of collecting and transposing Liszt songs, and once I found that the first versions of a number of his early songs were beautiful and rarely performed, I knew I had the kind of rep I would want to learn and perform. Since then I have been selecting groups of his songs that particularly appeal to me, and those have included settings of poems by Italian, French and German poets.
MMN: The songs you sing have been transposed to fit your higher range. Have you had any complaints from your piano accompanist, Janice Weber?
YZ: Janice is a veteran Lisztian, having played and recorded some of this composer’s most technically difficult solo piano works. She has had no problems with playing the transpositions of these songs… in fact, they fit very nicely on the piano in those keys.
Liszt wrote a few songs for mezzo or baritone that I can sing without transposition, but most of his songs are simply in the wrong tessitura for my voice, so I have them transposed until they are comfortable. This was a normal and regular practice until the 20th century with classical music, and is still the rule with jazz and pop vocalists. (Editor’s note: the intrepid music copyist tasked with creating these transposed versions is none other than your truly!)
MMN: Anything else you think my readers should know?
YZ: Your readers should know that Liszt was virtually forgotten as a composer soon after his passing, and that his compositions are not highly regarded by most of the music critics and music professors that I have encountered. The Bs (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner) are considered the top of the food chain, and Liszt is depicted a musical scavenger, a showman, an imitator and popularist, not a serious composer… or so they say.
I’ve been reading Alan Walker’s three-volume biography of Liszt and listening to whatever recorded tracks I can find, and respectfully, I disagree with the academicians. At this point I would say I enjoy singing Liszt songs at least as much as Schumann and Schubert — and that is a big surprise to me.
One more thing: tonight’s concert will feature settings of poems by Victor Hugo, a personal friend and close associate of Liszt when he was living in Paris. As readers may know, Hugo was the author of “Les Miserables”, inspiration for the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical theatre blockbuster.
MMN: I’m looking forward to hearing tonight’s performance!