What is musical form? Look at the textbooks, and it seems as if form is do to with the eye rather than the ear. They offer a whole range of types, laid out in neat diagrams like architect’s ground-plans – rondo, sonata, “slow-movement form”, da-capo aria, and all the rest.
Even as a music student I never quite believed in them. We can admire a Robert Adam country house and admire the way one side balances the other. But we hear music along time’s arrow, moment-to-moment. It’s a narrative that envelopes us, not something we inspect coolly from outside. When the opening section of a piece of music returns at the end, it doesn’t feel as if it’s “balancing” the first appearance. Too much has happened in between. The music sounds different, and we feel differently.
One of the great virtues of the new Liszt Sonata app from Touch Press is that it describes Liszt’s great B minor sonata as we actually hear it, not as we ought to hear it. Like all Touch Press’s offerings, it looks very classy, and is very easy to navigate. If you want to know what the standard sonata-form looks and feels like, there’s a whole chapter devoted to the history of the form before Liszt. If you want to know more about Liszt himself, there’s a chapter on him. Nicely chosen portraits show the transition from the slim, good-looking ladykiller of the 1830s to the pensive Romantic seer of the 1850s and the battered grey-haired old cleric of the final years.
But what makes the app completely engrossing is pianist Stephen Hough. He pops up everywhere, commenting on sonatas in general, on Liszt in general, often illustrating a point at the piano. The heart of the app is his complete performance of Liszt’s sonata, an unbroken span of around 32 minutes. Running along the bottom is the score, which unfurls in time with the performance. A vertical line marks the exact moment we’re hearing. Above, there are three views of the performance. We can focus on Hough’s hands from above, or his lean, ascetic face from the front (with a kind of graphic representation of the music unspooling behind his shoulder), or from the side.
The performance is accompanied by an optional commentary spoken by Hough, but there’s so much to enjoy in the unadorned images, not least Hough’s easy mastery of the keyboard. The contrast between the often furious energy of the piece and the calm competence of those hands, which are never in a hurry, is simply amazing. And the impetuous nature of the music registers even more vividly when you can see the fluctuations in tempo, registered in the rushes and sudden halts of that vertical line.