“Performing the Unperformable”

“Performing the Unperformable: Notions of Virtuosity in Liszt’s solo piano music,” is the title of my PhD thesis, completed at the Royal Academy of Music (graduated in July 2014). The PhD was comprised of an extensive written commentary and a portfolio of performances, including six concerts of Liszt’s music held at the RAM, and a studio pilot recording. Anyone interested in reading this should contact the RAM library.



In many ways, the solo piano music of Franz Liszt (1811-1886) could be described as ‘unperformable’. The relatively small proportion of his pieces that has been accepted into the piano repertoire presents many obstructions to pianists, and the complications caused by their reputation for being virtuosically challenging have resulted in few convincing performances (technically or interpretatively). Meanwhile, the remaining bulk of his œuvre is not generally performed; for various reasons, they sit uncomfortably in conventional pianistic settings.

For this project, comprised of a performance portfolio and a written commentary, I have researched Liszt’s perception of virtuosity and the way this has fed the conception of his compositions, to form my own performance practice and performative approach to his solo piano music. The written part of the thesis outlines my methods. In chapter one, components of Liszt’s virtuosity (improvisation, transcription and instrument) are examined in light of his double identity as performer and composer. Chapter two explores Liszt’s view of music as a particularly intense mode of personal expression, which I clarified for myself by way of analogy with the ‘literary self-portrait’ (Michel Beaujour). The ways in which Liszt’s music-making are a type of musical self-portraiture are then examined in chapter three. Chapter four analyses my own choices in performing Liszt’s music, in particular the use of historical instruments, programming, interpretative decisions and recording, and also the implications of performing somebody else’s self-portrait. The performance portfolio is both a documentation of my research methods and an outcome of my research. It features the recordings and programme notes of my six-concert series at the Royal Academy of Music (2011-13) of Liszt’s music, and also a studio-recorded audio disc that I edited myself.