Mykola Suk


Taking Liberties with Liszt: Pianist Mykola Suk celebrates a unique composer.


Franz Liszt was one of the defining demonic personalities of the Romantic epoch. His piano music invites an act of reckless personal investment: the invitation to inhabit Liszt the man. A great Liszt performance is certain to be startling, singular, unsettling. By this criterion, Mykola Suk — who makes a rare Boston appearance tonight at New England Conservatory’s “Salute’’ to the bicentennial of Liszt’s birth — certainly qualifies as a great Liszt interpreter.

If Suk is not a household name in classical music circles, it is partly because he purveys a kind of music-making — and not only in Liszt — not much in fashion over the past half-century. Also, he is too modest a man, too prone to worldly self-doubt, to campaign for himself. Born in Kiev in 1945, he was a professor of piano at the Moscow Conservatory before immigrating to the United States in his mid-40s — too old to profit from the appetite for youth that distorts our musical high culture. In 2002, he joined the piano faculty at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

Suk’s signature piece is Liszt’s “Dante’’ Sonata (as heard, for instance, on an astounding Music & Art CD also including the Liszt B minor Sonata and three Hungarian Rhapsodies, all in live performance). With its cascading octave chains, the work itself was self-evidently born in a tumultuous act of improvisation. And Suk’s epic reading sounds truly improvisatory: No transcription would closely resemble Liszt’s notes on the page. To be sure, the notes are there (mainly), but Suk’s liberties — of tempo and rubato; of pedal, touch, and dynamics — are extreme. In fact, to follow the score, listening to Suk, is a confining and irrelevant experience. Liszt’s “fantasia quasi sonata,’’ abused by mere virtuosos, rematerializes as an essay in emotion benumbed and tragedy spent.

In Boston, Suk performs not the “Dante’’ Sonata, but the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 and “Totentanz’’ for piano and orchestra — a pairing that discloses two sides of Liszt, and also of Suk. If at the keyboard, he is an artist inhabited and possessed, in conversation recently he was soft-spoken, ruminative, ironic.

“For many years, I avoided ‘Totentanz.’ I’m ashamed to say I didn’t take it as seriously as the concertos, or even the Hungarian Fantasy, which is a great piece of its kind. I can’t say that I’ve become any wiser — only that I managed to take a closer look this time. On the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo paints a man who’s covering one of his eyes, because he can’t bear to watch what he’s seeing — and who can’t stop watching with his other eye. He’s both overwhelmed and fascinated by fear. Some people find some of the imagery in this piece satirical or grotesque. I don’t. It depends on your own point of vision, your own eyes.’’

Judging from Suk’s performance of “Totentanz’’ last spring with Post-Classical Ensemble of Washington, his “Totentanz’’ is unlike any other. Typically, this work is a high-powered sprint that either ignites or descends into a purgatory of fiendish kitsch. By contrast, Suk navigates an existential narrative the whole of which is consumed by a devouring gravitas. Though he maximizes the play of tempo, expression, and dynamics, the piano is at all times a means, not an end.

The luxuriously upholstered 12-minute Twelfth Hungarian Rhapsody that Suk also performs in Boston is in his opinion “the most developed Hungarian Rhapsody in terms of variety of thematic materials, texture, and pianistic skill.’’ Asked about the stereotype of the Liszt rhapsodies as flashy, superficial music, he replied: “I violently reject this opinion. Forty years ago, almost nobody considered this performable music. Some people are so starchy, they don’t even try to look beyond their prejudices. But we’re humans, we inhabit a circle of feelings. Why not some pleasure and entertainment? Also, the Hungarian Rhapsodies — all of Liszt’s pieces, in fact — are pianistically very convenient. They may be terribly difficult, but unlike, say, Tchaikovsky or Brahms, they’re always convenient for the hand. And some of the Hungarian Rhapsodies are hardly touched — number three, for example, which isn’t virtuosic at all.’’

Suk acquired his reverence for Liszt from his principal teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, Lev Vlassenko — a pianist known in the United States, if at all, for having finished second to Van Cliburn in the 1958 International Tchaikovsky competition. Vlassenko did win the 1956 Liszt/Bartok Competition in Budapest — and so did Suk, 13 years later.

“Everything I can do in Liszt I owe to him,’’ Suk says of Vlassenko. “I take full responsibility for this statement. It doesn’t mean that what I do is the same as what he did. It’s been 15 years since he died, and how often I am thinking back to him. I would not say we were friends, because he was my mentor. But we actually spent a lot of time together, including recreational time, and conversations at difficult moments in my life. He once told me, ‘There are so many composers. But if I have to narrow the list as much as possible, there will be only two: Beethoven and Liszt.’ ’’ Suk himself considers the Liszt Sonata the pinnacle of the piano literature.

Vlassenko wrote of Liszt: “I think that each performer has ‘his own’ Liszt. I try to stress the virtuosic side of his music as little as possible. I never cease being surprised at the strength, depth, and humanity of Liszt’s passion and world suffering.’’

Suk: “You know, it’s true. Very often, you can present his music just as a showcase for the fingers. There’s a passage near the end of the ‘Dante’ Sonata with leaps and skips that’s just for display. I know at least one pianist who simply omits this passage; it doesn’t bring anything to the music. As for ‘world suffering,’ of course our existence consists quite a lot of that. I’m not a pessimistic person, I’m an optimist. And yet Goethe, in his ‘West-Eastern Divan,’ writes something very interesting: ‘I read the book of love, the book of life — pages of joy, volumesof sorrow.’ And this is reality. Tell me, what is more memorable in art — moments or joy or moments of suffering? Suffering, for example, generates compassion: a very powerful mood.’’ 

Another great Lisztian who eschewed display was the late Claudio Arrau, who once advised: “When people in Germany today perform Schiller, I always complain that they seem to be ashamed of the pathos. They think it’s old-fashioned. But you can’t play Schiller or Liszt with restraint. It becomes unbearable. Schiller’s drama and Liszt’s music have to be made.’’ 

Suk: “I absolutely agree with that. In fact, I am positive that everything has to be made, including ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’ You know, there is no direct linkage between a performer and his audience. You can’t just feel something, you have to present your feelings. At the same time, I am not sure I agree with Arrau when he also suggests that some of Liszt — say, ‘Totentanz’ — becomes kitsch unless it’s ‘made.’ It has never once crossed my mind that ‘Totentanz’ could be considered kitsch. Thomas Mann said that a banal idea becomes banal only because it’s used too much, and it’s used too much only because it has some value.’’

One reason Suk’s name is not much heard in the United States is that many of his engagements are abroad. New Yorkers are fortunate to hear him every summer at the International Keyboard Institute and Festival at Mannes College, where his programs have included the complete Chopin Preludes, Beethoven’s “Moonlight’’ Sonata, and handpicked novelties by a range of composers including C. P. E. Bach, Hummel, and Mendelssohn. On July 30, for the bicentennial of Liszt (born Oct. 22, 1811), he is giving a festival recital including “Funerailles,’’ “Les Cloches de Geneve,’’ two Hungarian Rhapsodies, and — a world premiere — “Homage to Liszt’’ by his eminent Ukrainian countryman Valentin Silvestrov.

“For the past decade or so he’s been composing hundreds of small pieces. There are two cycles dedicated to me, including various ‘homages’ to Chopin, Schumann, Schubert, whomever. I phoned him and said, ‘Valentin, the Liszt year is coming up and you have nothing for him.’ So he wrote these two waltzes in homage to Liszt. And there will be one other piece on the program not by Liszt: the ‘Moses’ Fantasy by Sigismund Thalberg, which he played in his famous ‘duel’ with Liszt in Paris in 1837. Liszt played his ‘Niobe’ Fantasy. I’ve looked at that piece, it’s not worthy of attention. Thalberg’s was the much better composition. Maybe that’s why Princess Belgiojoso offered her famous ambivalent verdict: ‘Thalberg is the first pianist in the world — Liszt is unique.’ ’’

And so is Mykola Suk.

Joseph Horowitz is a writer, artistic consultant, and teacher. He can be reached at 



Music Review

Mykola Suk plays Liszt at Boston Conservatory

By Matthew Guerrieri

 |Boston Globe Correspondent  

  November 11, 2011

The Franz Liszt bicentennial, which still has a couple of months to go, has been an opportunity to once again cast the composer as a host of familiar personae: Liszt the diabolical piano wizard, Liszt the proto-modernist innovator, Liszt the 19th-century rock star. But in his recital at Boston Conservatory on Tuesday, the Ukranian-American pianist Mykola Suk posited a Liszt that was ultimately too singular for any category.

Suk indulged Liszt the showman, plunging through the Hungarian Rhapsodies nos. 12 and 3 (the latter an encore, along with the F-minor Transcendental Etude). Suk’s tone manages to be both sinewy and ductile, a steely touch that seems to land on felt. He approaches the music with thoughtful athleticism, throwing himself into virtuosic passages with abandon. (Much of the concert’s fun was the persistent sense of a performance without a net.) His rubato has a precipitous quality, phrases tumbling forth, churning up momentum. And he uses a liberal amount of pedal, building up a translucent mass of resonance.

The pedaling brought out Liszt’s sheer unconventionality. Much has been made of Liszt’s revolutionary technique, but it was his conception of sound that was most radical. In Suk’s hands (and feet), Liszt’s more unconventional effects pushed beyond music: the bells-through-the-fog opening of “Funérailles,’’ the boomy haze of arpeggiation in “Les cloches de Genève.’’ The speed and blur of Suk’s thunder and rumble created heavy, rolling clouds of sound; at other times, a glistering buzz. The peak was Suk’s performance of the Fantasia quasi Sonata, “Après une lecture du Dante,’’ massive in conception, range, and timbre, Romantic musical daring crossing over into pure sound art.


Seully Hall, Boston Conservatory, Boston MA

Date of concert:

Tuesday, Nov. 8

The program offered historical contrasts both modern - “Dedication to Franz Liszt,’’ by Suk’s fellow Ukranian Valentin Silvestrov, a pair of neo-Romantic miniatures tailored to the pianist’s talent for crystalline mists - and vintage, the “Fantasie’’ on Rossini’s opera “Moses’’ by Liszt’s rival Sigismond Thalberg. The contrast didn’t so much demonstrate Liszt’s superiority - Thalberg’s “Fantasie’’ proved a refined entertainment on its own terms - but just how atypical Liszt was. Thalberg’s music is a grand, bravura amplification of classical technique; Liszt’s sounds like the piano idiosyncratically evolving into an entirely new species. Suk’s version of Liszt was, it turns out, very much like the devil, at least in George Bernard Shaw’s telling: dreaming things that never were, and asking “why not?’’

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at



LISZT: Piano Sonata in B Minor; Apres une Lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in C-sharp Minor; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 in A Minor; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 8 in F-sharp Minor - Mykola Suk, piano - Music & Arts


 Suk has his own ideas about the B Minor Sonata, which he plays for its extreme ecstatic convulsions in dark and light.

Mykola Suk (b. 1945) is a Ukrainian pianist who won First Prize in the 1971 Liszt-Bartok Competition in Budapest. His principal teacher was Lev Vlasenko, to whom Suk dedicates this all-Liszt recital, culled from various live appearances at Mannes College 2004-2008. Suk has his own ideas about the B Minor Sonata (22 July 2008), which he plays for its extreme ecstatic convulsions in dark and light. A broad thoughtful approach marks Suk’s rendition, providing a majestic canvas whose musical periods resemble as much a Bruckner Symphony as much as they recycle Schubert’s one-movement formula that naturally subdivides into affective variants of an original impulse. At several moments of peroration, the bass harmonies from Suk belie the upward D Major sweep of the music and suggest that the Abyss yawns before us.  For its moments of relative repose, Liszt takes us into B Major; and there, Suk indulges his intimate thoughts on mortality and heroism. But Suk enters Liszt’s chthonian world with the same headlong conviction as he does the lyrical flights of fancy, as they provide mirrors of each other.  The fugato episode maintains a sparkle and fleet acuity besides its fearless plummets into the Styx. The fulminating rush of volcanic ash that leaps out at us subsequent to this contrapunctus quite inspires holy terror. The final statement of the rising theme, grandioso, accepts life’s terrors and triumphs equally, Nietzsche’s amor fati. Suk’s double octaves overwhelm us, nothing short of a spectacular burst of orchestral sound.

The Dante Sonata (19 June 2005) may permit a more “programmatic” reading than theB Minor Sonata, insofar as the lyric tragedy of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo suffuses the score with heartbreak and tumultuous nostalgia. Suk at first understates the monstrously aggressive chromatics--centered around D Minor--that rage through Inferno, that place of Eternal Pain whose fires give forth no light. The music’s tender intertwining of chordal descent and limpid arpeggios reminds us that it was the legend of Guinevere and Lancelot that “served as a pander” for Paolo and Francesca Malatesta’s illicit love. “We read. . .but soon we read no further.” The stretti become inflamed, ardent, undeniable in their erotic urgency. Renewed, the pitiless winds of Inferno’s second bolgia resume their fury, even as the chordal progressions echo the “Abandon All Hope” motif. Dante, himself committed to passionate love, must swoon in sympathy to the lovers’ eternal trial; and in so finding communion, the sufferers and their living witness undergo an apotheosis into Liszt’s favored F-sharp Major, his key for beatitude.  A glorious heartfelt performance, Suk’s sinewy version will fascinate and compel many repeated auditions of this grand vision.

The Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 (22 July 2007), with its application of gypsy and Byzantine scales, along with cimbalom effects, serves as an epic vehicle for Suk’s muscular talents. His alla musette approach charms by dint of its pearly play, its shuddering speed and delicacy. No less fluid is Suk’s capacity for legato and bel canto in Liszt, allowing his keyboard to flirt, to play the coquette in a salon melodrama.  When the music declaims or rings with ecstatic fanfares, Suk’s resonant sonority easily evokes trumpets and national pipes. The admixture of alchemical, metrically jarring colors in the latter pages and demonic coda prove irresistible. Ask the Mannes crowd what they thought.

The A Minor Rhapsody No. 13 (19 July 2005) used to command the attention of wizard Mischa Levitzky, among others. Its melancholy evocation of the Magyar plains--lassan--allows for wisps of soaring reminiscence, then the consolation of a village dance tune. The trill itself becomes organic and explosive, alternating with the strummed plaint of the opening tune. Suk’s luftpausen attach an old-world allure to the erotic mysteries of this sultry piece whose friska section anticipates Sarasate’sZigeunerweisen. The degree of control Suk exerts over the plastic superheated runs and staccati would astonish the Devil. Potent!

Finally, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 8 (18 July 2004), a particular favorite of Alexandre Brailowsky. Its askew lyricism warrants our attention for its ballade-like declamations interspersed with virile cadenzas. Suk’s rolled arpeggios assume the proportions of huge waves from a mercurial sea. The dance element exhibits much that Chopin flaunted in his bravura pieces, fleet, metrically intricate, and eminently impulsive. Suddenly, we find ourselves in the throes of the same tune Brahms utilized for his own Hungarian Dance, only more manic, outrageously self assured.

--Gary Lemco

Published on March 19, 2010