LISZT Grandes études, S137
A bit of housekeeping: this disc is of the first concert versions (S137, from 1837) of the monumental Douze Études d’exécution transcendante (S139, from 1851), which appeared on Vol 2 of Naxos’s ongoing series of Liszt’s complete piano music and which had their origins in the Étude en douze exercices (S136) which Liszt wrote at the tender age of 14.
Listening to Wenbin Jin play these ferociously demanding pieces only increases one’s admiration for Leslie Howard’s Herculean traversal of the complete works – single-handed, as it were. There are an awful lot of notes and, as Howard himself puts it, an ‘almost absurd level of difficulty that lends [the 1837 set] a particular devil-may care quality’. No one in their right mind would willingly learn and play this earlier set in preference to the revised versions – less, in the latter case, is more – but, nevertheless, ‘the music value of [S137] remains incontestable’ (Howard again). They are ‘studies in musical expression seen through the virtue of complete technical accomplishment’.
Although the 12 studies of S137 can be appreciated independently, they are more fascinating when complemented with a knowledge of the familiar later versions. Keith Anderson’s Naxos booklet charts some of the major differences (Leslie Howard’s for Vol 34 of his Hyperion series is far more detailed).
Wenbin Jin hurls himself into these treacherous waters with due abandon, exploiting the full tonal resources of his instrument, vividly captured with a highly projected treble register. If Liszt played these pieces with the same level of ferocity it is no wonder that his recitals were a litany of snapped strings and broken hammers. Certainly some of the writing, such as the opening of Study No 8, must have been far easier to accomplish with the lighter actions of the 1830s, and as Liszt piles Pelion on Ossa, Wenbin Jin becomes ever more like Horatius before the River-gate taking on all comers. It’s a remarkable display of pianistic stamina and doggedness.
The portrait of the young Liszt on the cover is even worse than the one by the same artist on Vol 42. Surely there must be something better.