Liszt: Transcendental Studies

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COMPOSERS: Liszt
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Etudes d’exécution transcendante S 139
PERFORMER: Alice Sara Ott (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: DG 477 8362

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Ambitious to choose Liszt’s ultra-demanding Transcendental Studies for a debut recording? Maybe. But Alice Sara Ott quickly establishes that her ten fingers have what it takes, and then some. The quicksilver speed, agility, and accuracy required by No. 2 in A minor?

No problem – nor, indeed, with the devilish right-hand part of ‘Feux follets’. And the best of the big moments – as in ‘Harmonies du soir’ – do indeed swell into those great columns of piano sound that were Liszt’s unique territory.

Why, then, does an evidently talented player insist on pedalling as extravagantly and loosely as this? Again and again, one harmonic change after another smudges into the next. Moreover, whenever Ott leaves off doing it for a moment, you’re allowed to hear that she has exactly the kind of flickering incisiveness that the music demands – as in the middle section of ‘Eroica’, or the hair-raising closing paragraphs of ‘Mazeppa’.

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In her booklet interview, Ott rightly insists that ‘Only a performance of the complete cycle captures [Liszt’s] immense quasi-orchestral and symphonic vision.’ But her delivery of that vision is patchy at best: with only a surprisingly monochrome range of keyboard colours to draw on, drama and individuality are undercharacterised. Berezovsky, or in an earlier generation Arrau, leave this at the post. Malcolm Hayes