LISZT Etudes d’exécution transcendante
Kirill Gerstein’s last appearance in these pages was for his premiere recording of Tchaikovsky’s B flat minor Concerto using what is, in effect, the composer’s conducting score (ie the work’s second version, rather than the third and final version familiar today – 2/15). His new disc is of Liszt’s final 1852 version of the 12 études he had first mapped out in 1826 as a 15-year-old boy and revised in 1837.
It is not every pianist who is able to risk the formidable challenge of playing all twelve Transcendental Etudes in sequence live in concert. The amount of stamina, accuracy, power, musicianship and plain technical prowess needed to pull it off successfully is beyond the reach of most. I had the pleasure of hearing Gerstein do just that at the Wigmore Hall last year in a memorable concert, without him, it seemed, breaking sweat.
Gerstein reignites many of those elements in this superb studio account of Liszt’s pianistic vade mecum, a recording (on a beautifully voiced instrument) that is well able to stand alongside the benchmarks and personal favourites I listed in my review of Dinara Klinton’s excellent new version (4/16) – Lazar Berman, Vladimir Ovchinnikov, Georges Cziffra and Boris Berezovsky. Gerstein’s overall timing (64'00") is similar to these giants.
From the opening ‘Preludio’ (played as a proper introduction, not as a macho wham-bang fest) and exacting demands of No 2 (entitled ‘Fusée’ by Busoni), we gather that Gerstein is no mere showman but a storyteller who, even at the height of Liszt’s ferocious challenges, lets the music breathe, controlling its ebb and flow with enormous skill. You won’t, I think, hear better versions of Nos 11 and 12 (‘Harmonies du soir’ and ‘Chasse-neige’), though I found Nos 7 (‘Eroica’) and 10 (in F minor) slightly studio-bound. One could nitpick over various minor details (the missing appoggiatura on the last chord of ‘Eroica’, the end of the second page of ‘Ricordanza’ is not a true ppp and Liszt’s vivid disperato request in No 10 is not really met) but I’m disinclined to. Overall, it’s a terrific achievement.