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LABELS: Melodiya
WORKS: 12 Transcendental etudes
PERFORMER: Lazar Berman (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: MEL CD 10 02179 (1963)


At last, Lazar Berman’s legendary 1963 traversal of Liszt’s Etudes d’exéction transcendante is widely available on CD. Berman recorded the complete work twice for Melodiya, in 1959 (mono) and 1963 (stereo). The mono version was included in BMG’s ‘Russian Piano School’ series in the mid-1990s, but the stereo remake – superior in many ways, not only sonically – has been a hard-to-obtain collectors’ item. It was issued under license by EMI in the 1970s, on two LPs, and appeared fleetingly on CD in Japan in the 1980s. Otherwise, until now, it’s been something to borrow, beg or steal.

Although Berman’s prodigious gifts were recognised in the Soviet Union (Emil Gilels famously called him ‘the phenomenon of the music world’), his reputation in the West, with his travel severely curtailed, was sustained among aficionados largely through a handful of recordings such as this one.

Right from the start, the rhetorical opulence of Berman’s playing is overwhelming. No one has been more demonic in the A minor No. 2, or more heroic in Mazeppa (No. 4). In between, Paysage is a marvel of poetic shape and immaculate voicing. Whether in the steeplechase of Wilde Jagd, the ardent longing of Ricordanza or the epic landscape painting of Chasse-neige, Berman rises to every challenge with unremitting focus and intensity. Without any need for emergency rubatos, in fact seemingly without technical obstacles at all, Berman channels his all-encompassing emotional and physical power into music-making of epic grandeur and poetic insight. In short, one of the most magisterial Liszt recordings ever made.


Tim Parry