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Franz LISZT (1811–1886)
Complete Piano Music: Volume 45
12 Grandes Études (1837)
Wenbin Jin (piano)
rec. 2015, Morse Recital Hall, Yale Schools of Music, New Haven.
NAXOS 8.573709 [72:28]

Liszt’s set of twelve Transcendental Studies of 1852 is one of the warhorses of the repertoire but in fact this was the third version of these pieces. He started drafting them as a teenager and originally intended to write a set of forty-eight, with two in each major and minor key. In fact he only wrote twelve, and, instead of writing additional ones for this set, took to revising the twelve he had written. The second version came in 1837, published in 1839, and that is what we have here. They draw on the amazing technique he had developed by then, and have enormous technical difficulties, in addition to the strength and stamina required to play them.

Most recordings are of the 1852 version, and indeed this is the first time I have heard the 1837 set. In general terms, the main differences between the pieces in this version and in the final version consist of a certain amount of cutting, so that some studies lose a variation, and of the simplifying of some of the technical demands. So this set plays for about ten minutes longer than the final version. Still, for pages together you would be hard put to tell the difference. Another difference is that Liszt gave all but two of the studies titles in the final version; this version has only indications of tempo. I shall, however, use the titles, in brackets, as readers are more likely to know these pieces in their final versions.

No. 1 (Preludio) is a brief warm-up with arpeggios, much the same in both versions. No. 2 (untitled) begins the extreme technical demands, including great finger dexterity and rapid octaves, at a pace marked Prestissimo. In contrast, No. 3 (Paysage) is gentle and contemplative, rather like one of the Années de pèlerinage pieces, and, while not easy, without outrageous technical demands. No. 4 is the well-known Mazeppa, later orchestrated. The main theme returns in a series of variations, with momentum in the accompaniment beginning headlong and gradually reducing; there is also a poetic middle section with an elaborate accompaniment in arpeggiated thirds and repeated notes. There is a triumphal end.

No.5 (Feux follets) evokes will-o’-the-wisps with flickering figuration in the treble. The bass gradually joins in and the writing becomes more and more complex while remaining quiet. This is one of the best pieces in the set, in either version. The texture may have influenced Ravel’s Ondine, in Gaspard de la Nuit. No. 6 (Vision) features a chordal theme which is surrounded by more and more elaborate arpeggios. The Prélude of Franck’s Prélude, Chorale et Fugue owes something to this piece.

With No. 7 (Eroica) we have significant differences between this version and the final one, with an extra variation here. The character is of a brisk but solemn march. No. 8 (Wilde Jagd) is a nocturnal hunt, a celebrated feature of German romantic music, such as in Weber’s Der Freischütz. This version is really cruelly demanding and, in my view is somewhat over-extended. The revision is a better work.

No. 9 (Ricordanza) is a nostalgic and beautiful reverie. Busoni said it was ‘like a packet of yellowed love letters.’ It sounds rather like Chopin but could not have been directly influenced by him.

No. 10 (untitled) is a fierce work which again is rather longer in this version than the final one. It is extremely difficult. No. 11 (Harmonies du Soir) evokes an evening, at first peaceful but rising to a thundering climax. No. 12 (Chasse-neige), in my view the finest of the set, evokes a snowfall gradually covering the landscape.

Wenbin Jin is of Chinese origin but is now based in the U.S.A.. He has developed a truly phenomenal technique and seems to take every difficulty in his stride. He is a very clean player, with no blurring with the pedal or otherwise. He can also play poetically and quietly and in fact I enjoyed the three gentler pieces most in his playing. In the fast and furious ones I was, somewhat paradoxically, more aware of his technical skill than I think is best for these works. Yes, they must dazzle and amaze, but I am reminded of a comment by Edward Dent about Busoni’s playing of Liszt: ‘The greater works of Liszt . . . often sounded strangely easy and simple when they were played by Busoni. The glittering scales and arpeggios became what Liszt intended them to be – a dimly suggested background, while the themes in massive chords or singing melodies stood out clear.’ Jin is a very efficient player, but he does not achieve the effect which Dent describes Busoni doing, and which I consider to be the most desirable characteristic of a Liszt player.

There are other recordings of this version, but I do not know them. They do, of course, include one by Leslie Howard in his complete Liszt series. Although I am very glad to have heard this version, I think the final versions are in all cases improvements. For these there is the recent and acclaimed version of all Liszt’s studies, in their final versions, by Daniil Trifonov (review), while a personal favourite of mine is Boris Berezovsky – who does achieve the effect which Dent admired in Busoni.

The recording, made in a recital is really superb, with the piano sound coming over naturally and without a trace of distortion at climaxes. The sleevenote, in English and German, is informative. I wish Naxos would follow the example of Hyperion in their own Liszt series in listing the works contained on the disc on the spine, instead putting the volume number, which is of minimal interest and does not help identify the right disc. Still, Lisztians who want to explore his volume 45 will be rewarded.

Stephen Barber
Previous review: Jonathan Welsh

No. 1 in C Major: Presto [1:00]
No. 2 in A Minor: Molto vivace [2:33]
No. 3 in F Major: Poco adagio [4:32]
No. 4 in D Minor: Allegro patetico [5:42]
No. 5 in B-Flat Major: Egualmente [4:07]
No. 6 in G Minor: Largo patetico [6:27]
No. 7 in E-Flat Major: Allegro deciso [5:49]
No. 8 in C Minor: Presto strepitoso [7:28]
No. 9 in A-Flat Major: Andantino [10:14]
No. 10 in F Minor: Presto molto agitato [6:24]
No. 11 in D-Flat Major: Lento assai - Andantino - Allegro vivace [10:31]
No. 12 in B-Flat Minor: Andantino [7:41]



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