Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
12 Transcendental Etudes (Études d'exécution transcendante) for solo piano, S.139 (1852 version)
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
rec. December 2016, Siemens Villa, Berlin

This is Kirill Gerstein’s second release on Myrios Classics following his acclaimed first orchestral album comprising of the Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto and the world première recording of Tchaikovsky’s own final 1879 version of the First Piano Concerto (review).

Born in the Soviet Union in 1979 Gerstein is an American/Russian pianist who made his main orchestral debut in September 2000 with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich under David Zinman. For this new album on Myrios Classics Gerstein has turned to a solo recital programme of Liszt’s 12 Transcendental Etudes having performed the full cycle on tour last year in London and New York. Owing to the considerable technical difficulty of some of the pieces Gerstein has described the cycle as “one of the most towering mountain peaks of the piano literature.”

Like many of Liszt’s works the set of Transcendental Etudes has a rather convoluted history. The cycle is comprised of material written when Liszt was a mere 15 year old in 1826. Known at that time as Etudes on 48 Exercises not the 12 actually written, evidently Liszt intended to write 2 studies using all major and minor keys. In 1837 using the same material the composer significantly revised the cycle expanding its contents into more virtuosic, more technically challenging pieces. During the 1837 revision Liszt allocated programmatic titles in French and German to the set with the exception of Etudes No’s 2 and 10. Ferruccio Busoni gave titles Fusées (Rockets) to Etude No. 2 and Appassionata to Etude No. 10 although they are not used here; just the key and tempo markings. The set was published in 1839 as the 12 Grandes études. In 1852 Liszt now in his 40’s gave more revision to the cycle, now titled Études d'exécution transcendante and according to Gerstein “streamlined” the cycle, and this is the version he plays here.

For its time the piano technique required for these Études was extremely advanced and goes further than the usual purpose of an étude with the pieces at times taking on a near spiritual dimension. With a real sense of engagement Gerstein’s concentration is palpable and he seems in his element confidently tackling the often severe challenges Liszt’s cycle presents. Gerstein achieves ardent determination with real authority in the Molto vivace and the Mazeppa, a deeply reflective and passionate mood in the Ricordanza and a dramatic journey in the Chasse-neige, maintaining the tension throughout.

Probably taken from an on-line interview, in the booklet I enjoyed reading Gerstein’s informative dialogue about the Transcendental Etudes with Tom Service. Recorded at Siemens Villa, Berlin on my standard player this hybrid SACD has admirable sound which is clear with an excellently balanced Steinway model D-274.

Michael Cookson

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