Pianist Anastasia Antonacos gave it a good try Friday night at the University of Southern Maine’s Corthell Hall, but I’m still not convinced that Franz Liszt is on the short list of great composers. His virtuosity always gets in the way.

Antonacos began the program celebrating the 200th anniversary of Liszt’s birth with three of his lesser-known Hungarian Rhapsodies. Like the good professional she is, the pianist never panicked at memory blanks but made the pauses seem like intended caesuras.

The result, in the Rhapsody No. 3 especially, was an improvisatory style that may or may not have been intended by the composer.

Both she and Liszt were on firmer ground in his arrangements of three Schubert songs: “Standchen,” “Fruhlingslaube” and “Auf dem wasser zu singen.” The transcriptions imitate the vocal parts very well, while expanding upon the accompaniment to paint some delicious images, like those of birds in the “Standchen.”

Liszt is at his best when building upon another composer’s themes, making the piano sound like a full orchestra or elaborating upon a strong melody, both extremely effective.

It is often said that Liszt wrote transcriptions of operas, and even symphonies, to enable those who could not visit the big city to hear them at home. The fallacy behind that idea is that no amateur pianist could even attempt a Liszt transcription. They were composed for public display and public display alone.

The first half closed with a piece of “serious” music, exemplifying the composer’s religiosity, “Legend No. 2: St. Francis Walking on the Waves.”

At first I thought, yes, this is it, this is real music. A fine, long-limbed motif pictures the saint walking, and is then superimposed on a near-perfect depiction of waves, intricately braided and writhing like those in a Japanese print. It is quite wonderful.

But then Liszt proceeds to beat the idea with a stick, as if carried away by his own flood, and the effect is lost in repetitive turmoil.

“Les jeux d’eau a la ville d’Este,” which came after intermission, is also an excellent study of playing water. It may have influenced Ravel and Debussy, who did it better, but its primary drawback is the lack of a theme to hold the musical images together.

This is attempted in the final work on the program, “Apres une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi una sonata.” The composer wants to unify the images of the Inferno, but can’t quite manage it.

When there is so much great music to learn — all the sonatas of Prokofiev, for example — why do young pianists, and Antonacos is one of the best, spend so much time on Liszt? The challenge to technique, to impress naive audiences?

Maybe everyone should add one of the Transcendental Etudes to his or her repertoire, just to prove that they can do it, and then concentrate on more important things.

 

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:

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