Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes: a survey

I’ve been going through a Franz Liszt phase again since around Christmas, when I brought his Piano Sonata in B minor (Claudio Arrau) and his Années de pèlerinage (Lazar Berman) along with me to California. Above all, I’ve been fascinated by his Études d’exécution transcendante because of their combination of extreme virtuosity and rich musical appeal. The twelve pieces are are supposedly among the most difficult to play in the classical piano repertoire. For me etudes 3 (“Paysage”), 5 (“Feux Follets”), 10 (“Allegro Agitato molto”), 11 (“Harmonies du Soir”) and 12 (“Chasse-Neige”) stand out, though the set as a whole remains one of Liszt’s strongest works.

Here are my comments on several different interpretations after listing to a broad selection of them.

A logical starting point is the 1974 recording for Philips by Claudio Arrau, who studied under one of Liszt’s pupils, Martin Krause. The great thing about Arrau is that he never loses sight of the music’s inherent expressiveness and poetry. However, it’s not his strongest Liszt recording, mainly because he takes some of the tempos too slow; pieces like “Mazeppa” and “Wilde Jagd” should have more fire in them. I do urge you to track down his now out-of-print 1970 recording of the Piano Sonata in B minor; he makes a powerful case for this work as Liszt’s masterpiece and one of the most innovative works of the 19th century.

Jenö Jandó‘s budget-priced recording for Naxos is thankfully still in print, and it’s actually one of the strongest overall interpretations of the Etudes as a whole. He plays with a great deal of freedom, giving the pieces an improvisatory feel without in any way seeming willful. I especially like the delicacy with which he plays the slower etudes such as “Paysage” and “Harmonies du Soir.” I also love his singing tone in “Chasse-Neige,” which brings out the piece’s long melodic arcs. On the other hand, he could have played “Wilde Jagd” faster and with more fury. Frequently you can hear him humming along with the music, but I don’t find it overly obtrusive.

Jorge Bolet, another major Liszt interpreter, is less successful in his 1980s recording for Decca/London, which is out of print individually but is still available as part of a pricey box set. Despite his fine playing, his consistently slow tempos drain the etudes of the energy that they need in places. There should be more variation in tempo across the set as a whole.

I was initially bowled over by Evgeny Kissin‘s recording of five of the Etudes (along with Schumann’s Fantasy, Op. 17). Certainly his execution of “Chasse-Neige” is awe-inspiring as an example of Romanticism in the grand manner. But he plays “Feux Follets” in an overly fast and showy manner, missing out on its airy, mercurial quality. Yes, it’s amazing how fast he can play it, but that’s not the point of the piece–the tempo is marked as  “Allegretto.”

The most completely satisfying interpreter to my ears is still Lazar Berman. His 1958 mono recording is the only one widely released on CD, which is a shame. Although that interpretation is excellent, it has always suffered from distorted sound due to weak audio engineering. Much more satisfying is his 1963 stereo recording for Melodiya, which was released on LP in the West by Columbia in the 1970s. Apparently there was a Japanese CD of that recording, but it’s almost impossible to track down now. I ended up purchasing the LP on Ebay. There’s no shortage of fearsome virtuosity in movements like “Mazeppa” and “Wilde Jagd,” but Berman also plays the slower movements with great subtlety and lyricism. In particular he brings out the forward-looking qualities of “Harmonies du Soir,” which anticipates Debussy in its harmonics and keyboard textures. (As do some of the pieces in Années de pèlerinage, especially in Book 3; I strongly recommend Berman’s recording of this set as well.) Berman’s “Feux Follets” stands out for the way he brings out the melodic figures in the left hand – no small feat considering the many rapid leaps required. The capstone of the set is “Chasse-Neige,” in which he foregrounds as a great musical composition through his meticulous phrasing and voicing. This is where the improved engineering of the 1963 stereo set really pays off. I also love the way Berman gradually builds the tempo up to the piece’s devastating climax. There are still many great classical recordings not readily available on CD, but this is a mystifying oversight. Hello Melodiya? Columbia?


About James Steffen

I'm currently the Film Studies and Media Librarian at Emory University in Atlanta. Although my primary passion and expertise is in film, I also love literature, music and other arts.
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9 Responses to Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes: a survey

  1. Alvin says:

    I also like Jando not only in the Etudes but also his other Liszt recordings on Hungaroton and Naxos (esp Hungarian Rhapsodies and the Sonata). Other interpretations of the complete Etudes that should be considered are Cziffra and Berezovsky.

    • James Steffen says:

      I need to hear more of Jandó’s Liszt recordings! In general, I’m impressed with how well he plays such a wide-ranging repertoire. I haven’t heard the Cziffra recording yet, though his recording of the Hungarian Rhapsodies is a classic.

      As for Berezovsky, I saw a video of his live performance at La Roque D’antheron – a strong performance, and uniquely valuable as a video record of the Etudes. It made me appreciate how challenging those pieces really are – the pianist has to know the keyboard completely in order to manage all the rapid, wide leaps. What do you think of Berezovsky’s CD?

  2. Quite an interesting survey, especially for a Lisztian who is something of a Transcendental Etudes buff – like myself.

    I too like Claudio Arrau on Philips and I wish he had been recorded in better sound. But he is fascinating combination of technique and musicality, not something you often hear in these pieces.

    Jorge Bolet, however, is my personal favourite. His late DECCA recording is surely somewhat deficient techically, but he manages – as every great artist does – to convert his weaknesses into strengths. His is the most musical interpretation I’ve ever heard and I think nobody has ever done more to prove that Liszt was first and foremost a great composer and then – and only then – a stunning technician.

    Do you know by the way that Bolet has an earlier recording of the Etudes? It is not especially well recorded (Ensayo) but captures Bolet is his absolute prime (1970). “Mazeppa” is especially different, almost a minute longer and stupendous technically without losing a bit on the musical side. On the whole the recording is stunning but still unique musically.

    Once I used to be appalled by Lazar Berman but now I look upon him as much more interesting artist than I used to; and of course his technical prowess is amazing. As for Cziffra and Berezovsky mentioned by the commentator above, these are quite simply the most perverse “interpretations” known to me; because of such travesties Liszt has been, and indeed still is in some quarters, regarded merely as a meretricious poser and nothing more. Nothing is further from the truth.

    • James Steffen says:

      Alexander: Sorry, I never replied earlier–I was writing my book during the summer and your comment slipped through the cracks. Thanks for the link to the earlier Bolet version–I wasn’t aware of it! The Amazon reviews don’t sound promising, not that it necessarily means anything; I’ll give the CD a shot. I’ll probably listen to his DECCA recording again as well. Actually, I saw Bolet perform live in Las Vegas during the late Eighties, toward the very end of when he was giving concerts. I didn’t really know enough about Liszt at that time to judge his playing, but he had a commanding presence. I remember that “Venezia i Napoli” was on the program, and that he threw a fit and slammed his arms down on the keyboard when some audience members clapped between movements.

      As for Cziffra, the few Etudes I’ve heard by him are virtuosic but unduly harsh to my ears. I still haven’t heard the entire set, though. He plays the Hungarian Rhapsodies so fast that it sounds as if he drank twenty cups of coffee beforehand! His playing is impressive but overbearing, and I can never listen to more than a couple pieces at a time by him before I have to stop. But I’m still strangely fascinated by his approach.


    Here is Bolet earlier rendition reissued on CD, should you be interested.

    Apparently he made one ever earlier recording (RCA, 1960) but that seems never to have been issued on CD at all.

    And thanks for Jeno Jando recommendation. Sounds like worth listening to.

  4. Emily says:

    I also like Jando not only in the Etudes but also his other Liszt recordings on Hungaroton and Naxos (esp Hungarian Rhapsodies and the Sonata). Other interpretations of the complete Etudes that should be considered are Cziffra and Berezovsky.

  5. Amy says:

    I also like Jando not only in the Etudes but also his other Liszt recordings on Hungaroton and Naxos (esp Hungarian Rhapsodies and the Sonata). Other interpretations of the complete Etudes that should be considered are Cziffra and Berezovsky.

  6. Darryl says:

    Now 4 years later, Melodiya has released the ’63 Berman Études d’exécution transcendante. But even more interesting are the number of live recordings available, which typically involve a selection of up to 10 of them.

    • James Steffen says:

      Thank you very much for this! I’ll have to track these recordings down. The live recordings are especially interesting to me.

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