LISZT: Etudes d'execution transcendante
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Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Complete Piano Music, Volume 2
However opinions may diverge about Franz Liszt, he will always be regarded as a phenomenon. No other artist has ever achieved so great a success, or has fixed public attention for so long a period.
-Ernst Pauer (1826-1905), Austrian pianist, teacher, editor and composer
Franz Liszt, the brilliant pianist and conductor, the picturesque hero of a romantic age, has been a legend for almost two centuries. Eclipsed by that brilliant figure, Liszt the composer and contributor to his own art has often stood half-hidden in the shadow of obscurity. Even today, at the end of the twentieth century, Liszt's piano works are rarely heard at concerts. The exceptions to this are, of course, his monumental Sonata in B minor, a few of the Hungarian Rhapsodies, and a very select group of concert études, operatic and song transcriptions. It is not difficult to see how this could happen. With an artist seated at the piano or waving a magic wand over an orchestra, seeing and hearing is believing. Thrills may be had for little or no effort. But a composer's score, its music hidden in a maze of little black notes, as gold is hidden in the earth, takes hard digging on the part of a pianist before it will come to light and shine. During his lifetime, Liszt lacked diggers. Today, there are more diggers, but the music still presents so many technical and musical obstacles that many pianists avoid the difficulties and opt for easier avenues of musical expression. And so, as American music critic and essayist, James Gibbons Huneker (1857- 1921) once said, \The true history of Liszt as a composer has yet to be written!"
No matter where one looks for contemporary comments on Liszt's piano compositions, all seem to agree that his writing for the piano can only be described as orchestral. He managed to extend the sonorities of the instrument to orchestral proportions. But the writing is above all highly pianistic. Liszt would often compare these "orchestral effects, as a painting is to a steel engraving without colours." Liszt was an extreme Romanticist in devotion to colour and poetic content in music. He was less a builder than a painter. Liszt also had a fluent gift of melody, which he explored through his incredible keyboard technique. In the variety and virility of his rhythms, he ranks with the greatest composers.
Liszt was always impressed by Niccolò Paganini's miraculous feats on the violin. He resolved to transfer them to the piano. Beginning by expanding the great violinist's wizardry in his own pianistic version (the six Paganini Etudes), he later took an independent path in the twelve Etudes d'exécution transcendante. According to one of Liszt's greatest students, Arthur Friedheim (1859-1932), "Liszt, by nature, was a rhapsodist and improviser," and as a result, Friedheim concludes, "the difficulty which Liszt's interpreters run into, even today, is the flexibility demanded of them." The music always glitters in such iridescent colors and expands in so many directions that even the best of pianists have to "live" with the music in order thoroughly to understand Liszt's construction, as it unfolds smoothly and without interruption. As a lifelong student of piano technique and colour, Liszt's pianistic studies (his "études") are perhaps some of the best examples of a complex mind, conforming to its own strict discipline.
Liszt's compositional years, 1835-1839, were spent mainly on the Etudes d'exécution transcendante (Transcendental Studies), the Etudes d'exécution transcendante d'après Paganini (Paganini Studies) and the first two books of Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage). However, the Transcendental Studies had the longest history. There are actually three different versions of these études. The first, published under the title Étude en douze exercices in 1826, was apparently planned as a set of forty-eight pieces. It was published originally as Opus 6 and later as Opus 1. These were clearly youthful works (Liszt was only fifteen when these were published), according to pianist Gunnar Johansen, "the cocoon form" of the better known 1837-38 and 1852 versions. "The 1826 version," Johansen continues, "cannot even be said to hint at what was to come... They are in the manner of Cramer, Weber, and of course, Czerny, Liszt's teacher during his Vienna study years." In 1837, the new edition of the twelve studies, this time without opus number, appeared in print almost at the same time in Paris, Vienna and Milan. Ferruccio Busoni, in his introduction to these pieces in 1910 wrote, "The Liszt whom we meet here has shot up to an unexpected height." Apparently a grand metamorphosis was taking place. According to Busoni, "Apparently without transition, Liszt surpassed all available and imaginable possibilities of the piano and he never made such an immeasurable stride again." Once again, Liszt announced more études than he published. The Haslinger edition states: 24 Grandes Études pour le piano composées et dediées à Monsieur Charles Czerny par F: Liszt. Only twelve were ever written. Robert Schumann, who compared the first version to the second, stated, "that most of the pieces of the later work are only a revision of that youthful work which had already appeared; many, perhaps twenty years ago." In the new version, "we are often uncertain whether we do not envy the boy more than the man, who seems unable to arrive at any peace!" Peace, indeed! The technical prolixity of this second version must have been quite vexing for Schumann (and to most other pianists of the time), leading Liszt once again to rewrite his études for the third time. He published the final version in 1852. It is the version most often performed today. This third and final version is the one Jeno Jandó performs on this disc.
Although Schumann had labelled the second version of the études as "studies of Sturm and Drang for, at the most, ten or twelve players in the world," Liszt must have finally recognised that he had indulged his own unique powers in creating complexities that few others, if any, found manageable. The third edition of the études remained difficult, but became even more refined and poetic. In listening to these works, we are once again reminded that Liszt was the pianist par excellence; not only the unequalled virtuoso, but also the visionary poet, ardent dramatist, and boldest of romantic innovators. Abram Chasins says it best, "In writing music that would display all these characteristics, he created piano works that are as relentless in their physical demands as they are in their lyrical and imaginative demands upon the performer. To all but players of the very first calibre they are inexorably cruel, merciless in their immediate exposure of deficiencies in musicianship, taste, tonal control or technical command!"
The Etudes d'exécution transcendante begin with a short study called simply Preludio (Prelude in C major). It is one great crescendo and forms an imposing introduction to the series. According to Busoni, "the Preludio is less a prelude to the cycle than a prelude to test the instrument and the disposition of the performer after stepping on to the concert platform."
The second (Molto vivace, in A minor), Busoni believes is "one of those Paganini devilries similar to those in the Fantaisie sur la Clochette and the Rondo Fantastique sur un Thème Espagnol.\