Fellow Travelers


“Let the devil himself play this piece!”

-Franz Schubert, trying to play his Wanderer Fantasy

Strangely, this is the only pairing I’ve seen of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy and Liszt’s concerto-like transcription of the same. Issued by Vox with an interesting medieval village landscape (the Wanderer’s destination?), the recording has Alfred Brendel tackling both iterations.

Schubert’s “Der Wanderer” lied is the basis of the piece, with the adagio opening with practically note for note with the song. The remaining three movements start out as “variants of diminution”, with each mono-theme becoming more and challenging until the thunderous, fugal finale that recapitulates the preceding movements. And it’s all played without a break, as each movement segues into the next. Pianists agree that it’s a bastard to play; even Schubert struggled to perform it. Displayed in the Wanderer is Schubert’s almost obsessive developing of a musical idea in striking chord changes and subtly devastating mood shifts.

Franz Liszt was a painstaking transcriber and paraphraser of others’ works (Beethoven’s symphonies, Mozart operas, Rossini, and many of Schubert’s songs). He was totally smitten with the Wanderer in particular, and saw in its thunderous drama the components of a symphonic piece. So his version for piano and orchestra is faithful to the original, with the exception of a very Liszt-like cadenza.

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