In recital, David Fray builds a bridge between works of Schubert & Liszt

"What a piece becomes for me while I am onstage is never certain," says David Fray. "A piece is growing with each passing performance. It's a fascinating process for me."

Paolo Roversi

There is perhaps nothing more personal for a concert pianist than to put together a recital. The repertoire, the shaping of the entire event, is to a greater degree under the artist’s control than it can possibly be in a symphonic concert, where the soloist’s role is fitted into the orchestra's full season and the conductor’s design. It’s in the recital, the experience of an afternoon or evening with a single artist, that the listener can get the very best sense of just who this creative spirit is.  

The virtuosic French pianist David Fray, 41, has placed Liszt and Schubert side by side for a Symphony Center Presents recital on Nov. 6. "Already with the Liszt B Minor Sonata back in 2005, my idea was to combine them," said Fray by telephone from Europe. He was recalling his 2005 album release, on the Canadian Atma Classique label, which featured Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, the cornerstone of his upcoming recital, with Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor and some Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs.   

"I consider the evidence that Liszt was a great admirer of Schubert’s works," Fray said. "Liszt performed a lot of these Schubert iieder himself, and what I found interesting is even as he had this way of making the piano sound like an orchestra, this was the case with Schubert also. In my recital, I start with three piano pieces by Schubert (D. 946) that show what I feel is this orchestral approach. In my own mind, I am trying to make a bridge between these two composers, to show how they tried to treat the piano in the same manner."

One way their relationship becomes obvious, according to Fray, is in their use of the pedal. "Schubert’s pianos were very different from the pianos that Liszt had, of course. But keeping in mind that the pedal must not be used in a way that creates only a fog, you can hear their mutual fascination in using these interesting resonances to create orchestral qualities." 

Along with Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, the recital features four selections from Liszt’s far-reaching suites of pieces called Années de pèlerinage. These suites were written over a big span in his Liszt’s lifetime, during the 1830s, ’40s and ’50s, with a changing perspective reflecting the artist’s own international travels and maturing interests. In turn, Liszt was doffing his cap to Goethe’s great, and highly influential, novels that reflect a character’s formative and spiritual development. Fray views each of his own performances as essential parts of a continuing work in progress. It’s how his ideas take shape. 

"The main part of the job is to practice and study the piece at home," he said. “But another very big part is the tour. And what the piece becomes for me while I am onstage is never certain. Something may seem different from what I expected, and it would be difficult for me to explain why. A piece is growing with each passing performance. It's a fascinating process for me. In all this stuff, you cannot plan everything. You shouldn't plan everything. The pianos can greatly vary. You have to play fair and be receptive to the time of the day, and to the acoustic that you're given, and at the same time you must pay attention to what your own life is giving you in the moment."

“In my own mind, I am trying to make a bridge between these two composers, to show how they tried to treat the piano in the same manner.” — David Fray

Born in Tarbes, France, in 1981, Fray won the Concours des jeunes talents d'Aix en Provence in 1995, and he became a star pupil at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris.  In his 20s, Fray was already on the recital and festival circuit, a fast-rising star whose fleetness, fluidity and sophistication at the keyboard were widely noted. In 2008, BBC Music Magazine named him Newcomer of the Year. In 2009, he made his U.S. debut with the Cleveland Orchestra, followed by his recital debut at Carnegie Hall in 2010 and his first recital visit to Chicago's Orchestra Hall in 2011. In 2013, he first appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Jaap van Zweden, performing in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25.

Although being as busy as a performer can be, Fray reserves special attention for his summers at l'Offrande Musicale, his own festival in Tarbes, in the Hautes-Pyrénées region of southwestern France. One particular focus of the festival is accessibility. The concerts are free for disabled persons and a companion, with a concert area that can accommodate wheelchairs as needed, up to 20 percent of the audience.

Summer is also a time of renewal for Fray; it’s when he can develop new projects. "Obviously, when you create your own festival, you can welcome musicians that are friends. That’s one huge part. A second part is welcoming musicians you admire. And a third part is the opportunity to be more experimental, to try new things that in a normal season you couldn't propose." 

Among Fray’s other recent collaborative projects is the Hamburg Ballet’s Ghost Light, a haunting 100-minute memento of the COVID era, developed by the German company’s director and choreographer John Neumeier. It’s done to the short piano pieces of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux, and it captures the cultural isolation that the pandemic imposed when theaters all over the world went dark, save for the customary naked lightbulb illuminating those bare stages. (The light is kept on, it is said, in deference to the ghosts.) At L’Offrande Musicale, and with the ballet company in Hamburg, it was Fray at the keyboard during the lengthy ballet of tiny parts, with its dancers rarely touching. (Subtitled A Ballet in the Time of Corona, it’s definitely worth seeking out on DVD.)  

Fray’s festival also created a project around Handel’s Water Music with the Evanston-born Antoine Wagner, the great-great-grandson of Richard Wagner. Antoine works in both Paris and Woodstock, creating works of film, photography, opera and sculpture, often combined. “We used three giant screens around a small orchestra, projecting his videos,” Fray said. “It was a wonderful project of water, very luminous, reflecting the great trip that Handel made in Italy.

“To have these musical experiences together, in a dialogue between different pieces, and different forms of arts, is something I am always eager to show.”