Liszt: Études d’exécution transcendante

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COMPOSERS: Liszt
LABELS: Arte Nova
WORKS: Études d’exécution transcendante
PERFORMER: Alfredo Perl (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 74321 71768 2
‘Unfortunately we cannot hope to be able to hear music of this kind very often: Liszt wrote it for himself, and no one else in the world should flatter himself into thinking that he could even begin to do it justice.’ Thus Berlioz on Liszt’s third and final revision, in 1851, of his 12 Transcendental Studies – not to be confused with his six Transcendental Studies after Paganini, which include ‘La campanella’.

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How far piano-playing has developed since Liszt’s day (and after all, he gave up his virtuoso career in 1847) is an interesting question. There is no question, however, that recording has raised technical standards enormously. But what does ‘transcendental’ mean?

With his final revision Liszt gave all but the second and tenth studies poetic titles. There is still, in this recording, the feeling of technical challenge. Alfredo Perl is a much admired pianist who plays as if he has nothing to hide. Not only is he technically secure, he also makes a good sound, he observes all Liszt’s directions scrupulously, and the recording, though quite recessed, is fresh and resonant. Yet the music seems overblown and rather absurd. It does not seem ‘transcendental’.

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To appreciate what Liszt aspired to, you only have to listen to Boris Berezovsky’s recording. He is faster than Perl in every piece – considerably so in some. But that is not the point. What matters is that Berezovsky makes technical wizardry the vehicle of a poetic vision, so that you are transported without knowing how. Adrian Jack