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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
12 Transcendental Études (Douze études d’exécution transcendente), S139 (1852) [64:14]
2 Études de Concert, S145 [7:05]
Sheng Cai (piano)
rec. 2019, Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto, Canada

So here we have yet another recording of the Transcendental Études - there seem to have been a lot of these in the last few years, played by a variety of pianists from all round the world.  I’ve not heard of Sheng Cai before, but he has been well received as a “young Romantic virtuoso” in the press. This aspect of his playing certainly comes across with the first two of these études; the first “Preludio” sets off terrifically fast but all the notes are present and correct and I like the way he makes the bass notes sound as they underpin the scampering right-hand figurations.  He is not perhaps the fastest ever but is certainly in the top ten. I don’t think I have heard the second étude “Feux Follets” played this fast anywhere before – the speed and precision is incredible. That said, the tempo marking is supposed to be ‘Molto vivace’ so it’s certainly in keeping with the composers wishes.  He does have a habit of playing too loudly in this work but as shown in the later études, he is more than capable of playing quietly and slowly too.

There is a marked change of pace for the third of these studies, “Paysage”, a depiction of a landscape, pastoral in nature and rather hymn-like in places. Cai plays beautifully here; the closing few bars are really rather touching.  Pedalling is spot on and in this work the ability to hear all the detail, especially the central parts of the chords, is also done very well. Étude no.4 is the fearsome “Mazeppa” based on the poem by Victor Hugo, full of galloping thirds in both hands and some tremendously difficult music.  Here again, overall timings are similar to most of the recordings that I’ve heard but the impression here is that the speed is somehow faster. There is a driving element in Cai’s playing, forcing the music forward as it progresses in a manner similar to a set of variations. The other thing that comes across here is the strength in the playing; as I said of “Paysage”, the equalisation of finger-strength shows up here, so there are no weaknesses apparent and every note is heard.  The transition to the central B flat major section is well handled and again here, in the middle part, the playing is very fast. He also seems to take time to allow the tension to drop off between the differing sections of the work. The final peroration of the main galloping theme is very loud, stormy and powerful but this leads into the slow cadenza-like section before the final heroic fanfare of victory.

The tempo marking for the fifth of the studies is ‘Allegretto’ but here it is more of a ‘Presto’ which means it loses something.  I have to say I’ve never heard the left hand so clearly or so punctuated in a performance but overall it is a little too fast.  The pedalling though is excellent and very light, which does help with the clarity of the detail at high speed and means you can hear the tune throughout.  Of special note is the sinuous sounding left-hand tune at 2’00’’, which is absolutely perfect and leads into more reiterations of the main theme from the opening.  The sixth of these pieces is entitled “Vision” which starts slowly (it’s supposed to be ‘Lento’) and all of the details show up very well - the clarity in the arpeggios in the left hand are especially good.  Having said all that, once he passes the ‘accelerando’ about half way through, the increase in speed is obvious and the power is phenomenal.  Again, this is one of the fastest renditions I’ve heard of this piece but it stays on track.

I’ve always liked the slightly crazy “Eroica” étude; it’s full of wit and humour and bounces along nicely.  The opening is superbly done and when he gets to the ‘animato’ section, I hear details I’ve never heard before.  I don’t quite understand what Cai is doing but it sounds as if he’s not pedalling at all or, if he is, he is being very, very delicate.  The result is that this passage is crystal clear and the following ‘staccato sempre, con bravura’ is just as good.  This is powerful, impressive playing taking at breakneck speed and it really works!  Perhaps predictably, étude no.8 is phenomenally played – every bit the ‘Presto furioso’ that it should be.  Rhythms are incredibly snappy and the clarity is amazing.  The central, slightly more relaxed central section in E flat is wonderfully played but I found the insistent chords in the bass in the ‘un poco rit. a capriccio’ slightly too loud – I’m more used to them being integrated.  No matter; the score says they should be staccato and here they are.  The closing two minutes of the étude really are amazingly well played, full of fire and suitably paced for a “Wild Ride”.  “Ricordanza” follows, this is the longest and most beautiful study of the set and here all of the characteristics that Cai brought to the earlier études are just as apparent.  The quieter and slower sections are perfectly judged and the faster sections are very fast and clear. Again, the shortening of notes, especially at the end of phrases is used - this is not a languorous performance of this work, it is passionate recollection of a memory and despite all the power here, it ends peacefully and rather wonderfully.  Étude no.10, here given the title “Appassionata” (which was originally coined by Busoni), certainly fits that description, even the more restrained central section has an underlying tension which drives the music forward inexorably towards the violent and noisy conclusion. There is no let-up in the virtuosity required here and Cai does not put a finger wrong.

Things are much more peaceful for the eleventh of the set, “Harmonies du Soir”, a wonderful piece in D flat major and the second longest in the set.  It’s not all peace and harmony though; there are some outbursts during the piece which are well controlled and provide a good contrast to the more restrained music.  The theme 3’40’’ is the most truncated I’ve heard; the notes at the end of each utterance are cut off very abruptly but they are marked in the score to be played like a harp, so this is just as valid as making them hang on.  Cai is especially good in the louder parts of the piece; the ability to blaze away fff and triumphantly is used to full effect and he is clearly very happy to do this.  However, after all the storminess and stress, the work winds down wonderfully and here he plays absolutely magnificently too.  The last of these Études is “Chasse neige” – loosely translated as “Whirlwinds of snow” or “Blizzard” (personally, I prefer the former).  Although marked as an ‘Andante’ there are a lot of notes here, all played very fast. In addition to the tremolandos, there are also some huge leaps which are all negotiated with aplomb.  As I’ve probably said before, I judge performances of the “Transcendentals” on this piece and here Cai’s playing is absolutely wonderful. The inherent storminess of the writing suits his manner perfectly and makes for a superb performance.  The ending is suitably bleak in outlook and very well controlled.

Next, as a post-script to the Douze études d’exécution transcendente, we have the “Two Concert Études” (S145) – “Waldesrauschen” ('Forest murmurs') and “Gnomenreigen” ('Round dance of the gnomes') – the latter of which I am particularly fond of.  The first of these two pieces is marked with a myriad of instructions to play faster and faster and Cai is perfectly able to do that even though the start is marked as ‘Vivace’. This is magnificent performance of this little study that works extremely well.  Next is “Gnomenreigen” which is suitably spiky and very, very fast - perhaps a little too fast for my taste but everything is where it should be and the supernatural-sounding last page or so is very well done.

Overall, the recorded sound is lovely, the piano sound is natural and all the details are presented in perfect clarity (which especially noticeable through headphones).  The cover notes are interesting and mention the earlier versions of the Douze études d’exécution transcendente and read almost like a miniature story about them. There is much to praise on this CD but sometimes Cai has a habit of blasting away at full power without allowing the music time to breathe or the listener time to relax.  However, where things are more peaceful, he is equally able to play with delicacy and restraint. The more powerful études are superbly played but elsewhere, there is some remarkably delicate playing. I look forward to his next release; I’d be very interested to hear how he plays Liszt’s second Ballade as I think it would suit his temperament very well.

Jonathan Welsh

Previous review: Robert Cummings

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