App Review: The Liszt Sonata

002.pngThere are many ways to explore classical music other than by just listening to it. If you’re a musician, you’ll read scores, either on their own or while listening to a work. You may also want to watch videos of performances, to see how great musicians play your favorite works. Or you may simply want to hear a musician talk about a work, giving you insights into its structure and form.

Touch Press’s $14 The Liszt Sonata app (iPad only; 637 MB) lets you do all of these. Looking closely at Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor, this app lets you examine it in many ways, together with the great pianist Stephen Hough. There are extensive introductory sections, both in words and video, describing the work, discussing the sonata form, the structure of this sonata, and giving some background on Liszt’s life (which was fascinating).

The performance section of the app shows Hough playing the work. You get three angles, one from the side of the piano, one showing Hough face forward, and another above him, showing his hands. These views are all synchronized with the score, which has a cursor that moves as Hough plays. There’s also a sort of “guitar hero” view, showing which fingers are played.

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You can choose which of the top four views is largest; just tap the one you want to take up the most space. You can play and pause, and you can also listen to a commentary by Stephen Hough as you listen to the sonata, or read his commentary in subtitles.

As you listen and watch, you can move ahead or back through the timeline or the score by swiping. I’d find this more useful if there were some waypoints, letting you quickly get to specific sections the sonata, but if you’re familiar with the work, you’ll be able to find which section you want when you go through it.

I’m not a pianist, so the score doesn’t help me understand the work. But the introductory sections do give me a great deal of information about this sonata. Watching Hough perform is interesting, but it lacks the choices that a true director would have made with more cameras. However, a pianist trying to tackle this demanding work will certainly find all of this very useful.

If you want to immerse yourself in this sonata, this app will let you see it as you never have. If you’re a pianist, you’ll want this; if you don’t play, you may still enjoy looking closely at this work. It would be interesting if Touch Press were to release similar apps for other works. Bach’s Goldberg Variations would be a prime candidate, as understanding the different variations and canons help to appreciate the work as a whole.