There was a notable convergence some decades ago, one that was noticed musically as two separate and distinct phenomena, but not as a convergence—or even as a conspiracy, or a rivalry.  I never heard or saw any acknowledgment that two of the foremost instrumentalists in the world were fiddling around pretty much at the same time, with the same piece—one of them literally, the other not.  But how could the convergence be coincidental, when the two had been friends for about 60 years?

The pianist, Vladimir Horowitz (1903-89), and the violinist, Nathan Milstein (1903-92), were both from what is now Ukraine, and they met when they were young—as the latter put it, in 1921, “I came for tea and stayed for three years.”  In those early days, they were close friends and musical collaborators as a duo and even as a trio with the then-young master cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.

There were, after the Great War and the Russian Revolution, many reasons to go West, and Horowitz and Milstein (and Piatigorsky) did; Milstein had homes in London and Paris, and Horowitz in New York and Connecticut, as the years went by.  The time was past for much collaboration except for a recording of the Brahms third sonata for violin and piano (Op. 108), but later on these two men wound up both fiddling with the same piece at pretty much the same time.  And it was some fiddling that they did!  But before I get into that, I think some words about the Liszt Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke, or The Dance in the Village Inn) are in order—as a tone poem, as an example of program music, as an exemplary romantic composition, and also as a piece that has been recorded many times.  I won’t be saying anything about the 1969 novel or the 1971 movie named The Mephisto Waltz: They were beneath notice.

To begin with, around 1860, Liszt was inspired by a Faust written not by Goethe, but by Nikolaus Lenau (1802-50), so from before the beginning, we have a matter of more than transcription, but rather of transformation or transmutation from verse to music.  The story of the devil taking up the violin is not only folkloric, but also a reflective allusion to an historic phenomenon: the impact of Paganini and his justification of virtuosity for its own intensified and extended sake, itself an emblem of musical romanticism.  Liszt would later append this note to the printed score:

There is a wedding feast in progress at the village inn, with music, dancing, and carousing.  Mephistopheles and Faust pass by, and Mephistopheles induces Faust to enter and take part in the festivities.  Mephistopheles snatches the fiddle from the hands of a lethargic fiddler and draws from it indescribable, seductive, and intoxicating strains.  The amorous Faust whirls about with a full-blooded village beauty in a wild dance; they waltz in mad abandon into the open, away into the woods.  The sounds of the fiddle grow softer and softer and the nightingale warbles his love-laden song.

The last three sentences are the program from which the music is made—but of course, the music of Liszt’s composition is itself music about the music being made in the poetic vision—a point to which we shall return.

We can hardly fail to observe that Liszt invented little enough of the vision.  In the original German and in the English translation, there is the snatching and the tuning up of the violin, the waltz in mad abandon, the image of intoxication, the sound of the nightingale.  And perhaps, too, there is the suggestion of perspective as the wedding celebration is trashed.

But Liszt leaped further than we do, merely from German to English.  He jumped the gap from poetry to music, which is a modal metamorphosis, and—at least in this restricted example—a highly successful one.  He vaulted from description to displaced mimesis.  We have the violin related to violence, and sacred vows—even a sacramental aspect—reduced to possible drunken rapine in the bushes.  But the point here is not social or legal or theological, but rather an artistic and imaginative one.  The Mephisto Waltz is not immoral but amoral: It is not a statement but ravishing music that proves its own justification in its re-enactment of a supernatural tale that foregrounds the powers of nature over its own creatures.  Whatever a violin and a bottle of wine and a maiden in the moonlight might inspire, Liszt has already done.  And he did it all with a piano—he could do anything with that, and through musical notation, he did more.  And by attributing to demonic solicitation the misbehavior that we might expect from such provocations, he says something about divided human nature, or recognizes that Lenau did.

The Mephisto Waltz is well known as a virtuoso piece, but there are aspects of confusion here.  For one thing, the virtuoso passages are related to elements of the poetic model, and so are justified.  In addition, the allusion to Paganini is a necessary part of Liszt’s experience and that of his generation.  Another point is that some of the virtuoso passages are framed to sing in an orchestral manner, rather than to show off.  And finally, I must insist that The Mephisto Waltz is a masterpiece of composition.  In its sublation of sonata form and in its variety and continuous development, it is a new thing in music, comparable perhaps with some of “the greater Chopin” or even the Toccata (Op. 7) of Schumann.  The diabolic stunt by a show-off was a mature work of Liszt—his last to enter the standard repertory.

The Mephisto Waltz No. 1 was dedicated to Carl Tausig (1841-71), the most gifted of Liszt’s students (to whom was also dedicated the Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 35, of Johannes Brahms).  And ever since then, accomplished pianists have addressed the challenges of that difficult and rewarding composition.  The difficulties are perceptible, and so are the rewards, for the demonic dance is both beautiful and exciting, as is fitting for a piece of program music that demonstrates the arousing effect that temptation and alcohol can summon.  There are many appealing versions, so I will cite only a few.  In 1938, Edward Kilenyi seems to have gotten through the thing the fastest, but speed is not really the point.  William Kapell’s youthful performance of 1945 is often thought to be the cleanest and the best.  Sviatoslav Richter in 1958 played the moods and not the obvious pianistic offerings in a uniquely revealing fashion.  There have been superb performances from György Cziffra, David Bean, Earl Wild, Minoru Nojima, Stephen Hough, and others.

But to return to the pair of musicians with whom I started, I think I can justly say that Horowitz wanted to make Liszt’s piece bigger than it was, and Milstein wanted to make it smaller.  Horowitz was not—apparently—satisfied to play Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1 as Liszt had published it.  He had been intrigued by Ferruccio Busoni’s revisions, emendations required when Busoni retrofitted the Mephisto Waltz to return to a related but not literal purpose as a transcription of the orchestral tone poem.  But then it seemed that Horowitz wanted to equivocate among Liszt, Busoni, and his own revisions.  He had always liked rewriting pieces to suit himself, sometimes quite effectively.  By the time he was ready in 1979, he went up against not only an antiromantic century, but also a puritanism about musical texts, a distaste for meddling with established scores.  But it had been the forward-thinking Busoni himself who had insisted on the legitimacy of transcriptions and paraphrases; and before Busoni, even Brahms had appreciated Liszt’s extensive operatic fantasies.  Horowitz was right to stick to his guns, but there was little appreciation of what he was trying to do.  I thought at the time that he was trying to go back to an orchestral sound image, as Busoni and Liszt had envisioned; but Horowitz wound up being accused of “tarting up” the Mephisto Waltz and even “throwing in everything but the kitchen sink.”

But then, let’s face it: There had always been a problem or two with the Mephisto Waltz.  In reverse order, one was a conceptual problem from the beginning: From 1859 to 1862, Liszt had dispersed his goals.  The orchestral tone poem was backed up by the two-piano transcription, and the solo version we know was a related but independent entity.  The obvious second problem was the ending of the piece for solo piano: It was abrupt to the point of being anticlimactic.  The ending was a letdown, maybe even a botch.  Earl Wild had not been the only one to manufacture a better ending, surely!  Years before, Busoni had his way and his say, and even his ending is not entirely satisfactory.  Neither is his rewrite of Liszt.  Nor did Horowitz take much from Busoni.  Horowitz magnified the sound, slowed down the piece as a whole, and boosted the contrasts.  There was nothing wrong in what he did, nor did he deserve any rebuke for it.  After all, Liszt himself made rewriting his own and other’s works a supreme obsession.  Horowitz was justified and even modest in what he undertook and rendered: He paid homage to a great vehicle of romantic virtuosity.

But Nathan Milstein had the last word.  Still confident of his executive powers in what was his own old age, Milstein had the nerve to reduce the fingers from ten to four—the leap was backward, to the instrument that Mephisto snatched from the fiddler, and further back to the Paganini whose virtuosity was a cult.  Nothing could have been more appropriate than Milstein’s reasoned reversal of the instrumentation.  Nothing could have seemed more fitting than returning the sounds of the tuning of the fiddle to the violin itself.  And I dare to say that nothing could have been more beautiful than the results whereby what James Gibbons Huneker had called years ago “one of the most voluptuous episodes outside of the Tristan score” was returned to the original singing instrument of the romantic imagination.  And this somewhat foreshortened Mephisto Waltz will, I predict, one day be restored to bar-by-bar equivalence with the keyboard version.