Liszt: Études d’exécution transcendante

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WORKS: Études d’exécution transcendante
PERFORMER: Freddy Kempf (piano)
Few pianists have made a successful fist of the entire cycle of Études on disc. One who has (twice) is Lazar Berman whose 1959 Melodiya recording I take as the benchmark (despite the less than ideal sound), hardly less successful than his later EMI recording, currently and unaccountably out of the catalogue.


In 1839, at a concert in Milan, Liszt was heckled when he announced he was going to play a study. ‘I come to the theatre to be entertained, not to study,’ yelled the concertgoer. Nothing illustrates more clearly the difference between Berman and Freddy Kempf. Berman makes you smile at his audacity (try the opening of ‘Mazeppa’) as he toys with the most treacherous obstacles Liszt throws at him (fabulous left hand in ‘Feux follets’). Driving power and effortless sweep – the lion has been thoroughly tamed and can be commanded at will. Kempf, vividly recorded on a splendid-sounding Yamaha, plays with admirable clarity and purpose, but one is consistently aware of the technical demands of the writing – there are passages in the treacherous ‘Molto vivace’ and ‘Feux follets’ where his fingers let him down. Where Berman’s opening ‘Prelude’ is dangerous and declamatory, Kempf is controlled and emotionally constrained, characteristics which divide the two versions throughout – compare their handlings of the ecstatic central theme of ‘Wilde Jagd’, the final stretta of No. 10’s Allegro agitato molto and the swirling left-hand hemi-demisemiquavers of ‘Chasse-neige’. Sisyphus rather than Hercules, studies rather than tone poems, and a step too far, I fear, for Kempf. Jeremy Nicholas