ALBUM TITLE: Liszt
WORKS: Transcendental Etudes
PERFORMER: Kirill Gerstein (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: MYR 019 (hybrid CD/SACD)
Besides being among the most technically exacting challenges that a pianist can take on, Liszt’s Transcendental Studies are also major statements of musical poetry. It’s a reflection on today’s level of pianism that both these players are entirely on terms with the technical aspect. As Liszt ultimately intended, you’re given the impression that even the near-fiendish difficulties aren’t that difficult really: any sense of this being an issue has been left behind and, indeed, transcended.
So how about the poetry? Daniil Trifonov’s approach is to search out through rounded and constantly beautiful piano tone the music’s pre-Debussyian side – a legitimate take on Liszt’s radical streak, keeping any risk of meretricious display at arm’s length and bringing rich rewards in the atmospheric mood-pieces, so that the concluding ‘Chasse-neige’ becomes a true tragic vision, haunting and unforgettable. Sometimes Trifinov’s insistence on extracting the music’s essence constricts, a little too much, the sense of freedom that’s part of the Lisztian style, but only sometimes: ‘Feux follets’ can’t scintillate more than it does here. And that feeling of the music taking wing is then wonderfully unleashed in the other sets of studies: ‘Un sospiro’ and the fearsomely tricky ‘La campanella’ are delivered with mesmerising precision and loveliness.
Kirill Gerstein offers a similar degree of amazing keyboard dexterity, but less awareness of what to do with it. His ultra-clear articulation comes at the price of keyboard tone that’s a touch shallow; but a greater concern is his seemingly perfunctory approach to the music’s expressive world, in particular to its mood-defining harmonic changes. The rapt wonderment of ‘Paysage’ and ‘Harmonies du soir’ is sadly short-changed in this way. The shift from ‘Mazeppa’s initial barnstorming to the nobility of its central section, one of the great Lisztian moments, is skated over in perfunctory style; and to deliver the outer sections with this combination of velocity and clarity is a phenomenon in itself, so why also pedal these with a looseness which clouds over such keyboard mastery? Altogether a listening experience that frustrates: you sense that Gerstein the artist has far more to give.