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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
12 Transcendental Études, S139
Preludio [0:57]
Étude in A minor [2:14]
Paysage [4:56]
Mazeppa [7:06]
Feux Follets [3:37]
Vision [5:31]
Eroica [4:46]
Wilde Jagd [5:17]
Ricordanza [10:12]
Étude in F minor [4:54]
Harmonies du Soir [10:00]
Chasse-Neige [5:22]
Mélodie Zhao (piano)
rec. 2011, Salle de Musique, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland
CLAVES 50-1110 [64:59]
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Études, Op. 10 (1829-1833) [30:02]
Études, Op. 25 (1833-1837) [32:41]
Mélodie Zhao (piano)
rec. 2008, Studio Tibor Varga à Grimisuat, Switzerland
CLAVES DO50-1238 [59:58]

I recently reviewed Mélodie Zhao’s traversal of the Complete Piano Sonatas of Beethoven, an amazing achievement for one so young. She is still only twenty, born 1994 into a musical family in Switzerland, and of Chinese origin. From the age of three she has studied the piano. Early tuition took place in Beijing with Jiaquan Chen at the Central Conservatory of Music of China. Six years later she transferred to the Geneva Conservatory to continue her studies. She is currently working with Pascal Devoyon in Berlin. Other avenues she is exploring include composition, orchestration and conducting. She has already composed a piano sonata called ‘Sources’, taking Chinese water landscapes as inspiration. This was premiered at the Jinan Festival (China) in 2010. I was very impressed by Zhao’s Beethoven cycle, so it was a delight to receive her recordings of the Liszt Transcendental Études and the Chopin Études for review. It shows great courage on the part of a young pianist to tackle such challenging repertoire, and notch up two superbly recorded albums.
It took twenty-five years for the 12 Transcendental Études to evolve into their present form, undergoing two revisions in the process. The fifteen year old Liszt composed 12 studies Étude en douze exercises in 1826; these were later revised, becoming more elaborate and technically challenging. They were published in 1838 as Douze Grande Études. A later final version emerged in 1851 with the title Études d'exécution transcendante, dedicated to Carl Czerny, his teacher. For these, Liszt added programmatic titles in French and German to all but numbers 2 and 10.

Zhao’s opening Preludio is a scintillating curtain-raiser to what follows. In Mazeppa, her technique is certainly up to the job in meeting the virtuosic demands that Liszt sets the player. Runs are dispatched cleanly and evenly, and leaps are achieved with effortless precision. Feux Follets is fleet of foot and technically dazzling, with Zhao underlining the mercurial element. In Ricordanza, which Busoni described as ‘faded love letters’, she judges the mood well, and doesn’t allow the music to wallow in sentimentality or become too introspective. It is tinged with an air of wistfulness, and lyrical moments are expressive and eloquent in their realization. Harmonie du Soir, with its echos of impressionism and foretaste of Debussy, is perhaps my favourite of the set. Zhao’s careful control of the pedal ensures the harmonies are not smudged and the sonorities are awash with colour. In Chasse-Neige she conjures up a coruscating snowstorm, bring out the long arching melody and shaping the etude in the process.

If you think it amazing that the Transcendental Études were recorded when the pianist was sixteen, the Chopin Études were committed to disc when she was only fourteen. In one so young, I am astounded at the level of intelligent musicianship and musicality with which she acquits herself.

Both sets of Études were published during Chopin's lifetime. Opus 10 were composed between 1829 and 1832, and were published in 1833, in France, Germany, and England. The Opus 25 set were composed between 1832 and 1836, and were published in the same countries in 1837. To each of the Études Zhao brings supreme control of dynamics and phrasing. She has a flawless technique, supplemented with youthful vigour. I love the way she shapes the left hand in the ‘Black Key’ study, and the exquisite voicing of the chords in Op. 10 No. 11. The thirds in Op. 25 No. 6 are even and pristine. In fact, she has a complete mastery of each individual aspect of technique. I did, however, feel that Op. 10 Nos. 3 ‘Tristesse’ and 6 were somewhat staid and would have benefited from greater poetic insights.

I should point out that the Chopin Études are only available as a download, and I am told by Claves that they can be found on digital platforms such as iTunes, Qobuz and Google. They did kindly send me a hard copy from which to do the review.

Sound quality on both recordings is first class.
Stephen Greenbank