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RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Études d'exécution transcendante, (Transcendental Studies), S.139 (1852)
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
rec. 2015, Siemens-Villa, Berlin-Lankwitz
Reviewed as a stereo DSD64 download from
Pdf booklet included
MYRIOS CLASSICS MYR019SACD
With Francesco Piemontesi’s outstanding performance of Liszt’s
Années de pèlerinage: Suisse
still fresh in my mind, I thought it time to hear the Russian-American
pianist Kirill Gerstein in the composer’s Études d'exécution transcendante.
greeted this album with his customary enthusiasm, which made me even more
curious to audition it. As it happens, I also have the 24/96 download of
Daniil Trifonov’s version, recorded in the same venue – the Siemens-Villa,
Berlin – three months earlier. That performance, part of a 2-CD set from
Deutsche Grammophon, impressed
so much he made it a Recording of the Month.
These 12 studies, published in 1852 and derived from works Liszt wrote in
1826 and 1837, allow virtuoso pianists to strut their stuff. The wide
dynamics also demand a great deal of the recording team, who, in DG’s case,
capture Trifonov’s bold pianism well enough. And if you sense a ‘but…’ in
there somewhere, you’d be right (more anon). No, the biggest challenge is
to play these coruscating pieces in a way that combines substance with
showmanship. I can’t fault Trifonov’s technique – his runs and roulades are
simply breath-taking – although I feel insights are in short supply.
Finesse is well within his purview, though, the Ricordanza
In Liszt at least, the current crop of keyboard wizards – Piemontesi
(BIS) – achieve a pleasing balance between the Dionysian and Apollonian
aspects of this composer’s oeuvre. And good engineering is a must: those
labels all deliver a depth and richness of sound that does full justice to
Liszt’s inexhaustible talent. Alas, for all its clarity and weight, the DG
recording is just too analytical, and that quickly impinged on my
listening pleasure. As for Myrios, a preliminary listen to this download
suggests they place a much higher premium on good sonics.
Tech talk aside, does this album deliver musically? Gerstein’s Prelude is certainly encouraging, not least because it’s nicely
proportioned. By that I mean it’s built on a human scale, and that brings
listeners much closer to the music. With the almost superhuman Trifonov,
one feels more like a spectator than a participant, which, by definition,
introduces a degree of detachment. It helps that the Myrios recording –
masterminded by Stephan Cahen – is so involving, the warm, well-balanced
sound far preferable to DG’s comparatively shallow, chromium-plated
presentation. Also, colour and detail are dramatically enhanced, and not at
the expense of excitement, either (cue Gerstein’s Molto vivace).
What glorious, full-bodied pianism this is, and how spontaneous, the
jewelled loveliness of Paysage a wonder to behold. And what a
pleasure to hear so much air around the notes, and to be reminded of just
how much the body of the piano itself contributes to what we hear. That may
seem a bit fanciful, but it’s so unusual to find a solo recording that
generates such a heightened awareness of the interaction between artist and
instrument. In turn, this makes for a startling intimacy, a very profound
and powerful sense of ‘being there’; that, too, is very rare.
Apart from roaming the keyboard with such agility and aplomb – is there any
challenge he can’t meet, any hurdle he can’t vault? – Gerstein really
brings out the percussive nature of Mazeppa. That it doesn’t have
another, less welcome ‘edge’ is testament to the splendid recording. As for
the Siemens-Villa, I can’t remember when it’s sounded this good. But, most
of all, what the Gerstein/Myrios partnership reveals is the sheer audacity
of Liszt’s musical mind. As I’ve said before, the very best recordings
represent a confluence of talents, both musical and technical, and this
collaboration is a fine example of that happy state.
Gerstein’s Feux follets falls like a soft spring rain, with bursts
in between, the restless Vision beautifully shaped and articulated.
Here, especially, it’s very clear that while Trifonov obeys the letter of
these scores, Gerstein divines its guiding spirit. In so doing, he also
taps into a varied and thoughtful narrative that belies Liszt’s undeserved
reputation as a mere spinner of notes. Just listen to how expressive
Gerstein can be, even in big, bold numbers such as Eroica and Wilde Jagd, which can seem a tad relentless at times. Incidentally,
another pleasing characteristic of this recording is that closing notes and
chords are allowed to decay in the most natural and atmospheric way. The
pedal action is audible, but not distractingly so.
Without doubt, Ricordanza is the highlight of Trifonov’s
performance. That said, Gerstein, less moulded, is also more inward. What a
gorgeous, singing line, too. And if you think Liszt playing doesn’t come
much better than this, you’d be half right, for Gerstein’s Allegro agitato molto is even more of a revelation. What a
phenomenal range he has, and how fearlessly he uses it. Indeed, if this
were an assault on a daunting peak, he’d scale it with all the confidence
and skill of a seasoned mountaineer.
But the summit has not yet been reached, Gerstein’s finely calibrated Harmoniesdu soir is even finer than that of the otherwise
admirable Piemontesi (it’s a filler on his album). The final number, Chasse-neige, is certainly a zenith of sorts, reaching technical and
expressive heights of its own. After such an arduous ascent, one might be
forgiven a degree of tiredness; that one actually feels alert and
exhilarated is due to the dexterity and good judgment of this remarkable
pianist (with a little help from Cahen and his team). Detailed liner-notes
complete a top-quality product.
Extraordinary pianism that strikes a perfect balance between impetuosity
and insight; bar-raising sonics, too.