Franz Liszt. Transcendental. The Complete Concert Études. Daniil Trifonov. Deutsche Grammophon.
Franz Liszt. Transcendental Études. Kirill Gerstein. Myrios Classics.
Daunting. Formidable. Punishing. A supreme test of a pianist’s technique and stamina. Liszt’s “Transcendental Études” are indeed all of these things. But the rare genius of Daniil Trifonov’s recording of these works, released in 2016, lies in the ability of this 25-year-old Russian phenomenon to remind us that Liszt was not merely a composer of virtuoso showpieces but a musical poet of the highest order.
Unlike Chopin’s pathbreaking studies for solo piano, Liszt’s Études do not isolate specific technical problems. Instead, Liszt harnessed a dazzling array of innovations on the level of sheer sound — new colors, textures and sonorities — to create a cycle of tone poems for the piano that captures the breadth and intensity of the composer’s imagination. The sheer range of musical expression is astonishing: pastoral reveries, woodland scenes, romantic arias, heroic dramas, historical legends and visions of spiritual strife.
Trifonov displays staggering technical mastery and structural command. But the special quality of his performances comes from his musical finesse: the kaleidoscopic array of colors he can conjure and his seemingly endless variety of articulation and phrasing. In his impish take on “Feux Follets” (Will-o’-the-wisp), he summons into being an entire world of fantastical creatures through his impossibly light and scampering touch.
The sixth etude, “Vision,” perhaps best encapsulates Trifonov’s achievement. He treats the work as a study in shifting colors, emphasizing the contrasting textures of each strophe, from harplike passages to rich orchestral sonorities. Yet he also sustains an underlying sense of tension, revealing a deeper musical structure that evokes an ever-intensifying spiritual struggle.
Let there be no doubt, though, that Trifonov can simply bring the thunder when called for, as Lizst does explicitly in “Mazeppa” (marked “il piu forte possibile”— as loud as possible). Trifonov captures the sweeping drama of that etude’s legendary horseback ride with epic verisimilitude — all pounding hoofs and flared nostrils. Likewise, he exercises masterly narrative control over “Wilde Jagd” (Wild Hunt), with unbridled menace and rhythmic vitality.
Trifonov’s most beautiful and moving playing, though, may come in what he has called the cycle’s lyrical core. In “Paysage” (Scenery), he sustains a beguiling, trance-like lyricism, subtly tugging at phrases and gently, yet achingly, contrasting light and shade. “Ricordanza” (Remembrance) is all tenderness and vulnerability, fragmenting the usual melodic flow with impressionistic washes and dissolves of color. In “Harmonies du Soir” (Evening Harmonies), Liszt’s beautiful E-major melody emerges magically out of an atmospheric haze and is later transformed with majestic grandeur. In the richness of his poetic imagination, as shown in these three etudes, Trifonov may be peerless today .
There are certainly other notable accounts of the “Transcendental Études.” Sviatoslav Richter, who sadly never recorded the complete set, brings more demonic intensity to the second etude and undercuts the martial pomp of “Eroica” with greater irony. But among complete cycles, Trifonov’s makes the most persuasive case for these pieces as truly visionary works of music. His recording also comes with a generous second disc of Liszt’s other concert etudes in delightful performances, highlighted by a playfully insouciant “Gnomenreigen” and a delicate, impish “La Campanella.”
Kirill Gerstein’s fine recording of the “Transcendental Études” has the misfortune of having appeared in the same year as Trifonov’s. Coincidentally recorded in the same venue used by Trifonov and Deutsche Grammophon (the Siemens-Villa in Berlin), Gerstein’s account offers a more distant, more reverberant sound picture. The 37-year-old Russian, who will perform the complete cycle in Washington in May, is certainly technically secure, but his playing relies more on the pedal and is less vividly colored.
Gerstein’s approach serves him well in “Chasse-neige” (Snowstorm), where he evokes Liszt’s menacing winter landscape with an icy monochromaticism. In “Vision,” he adopts a slower, more deliberate tempo and constructs a weighty, imposing structure that builds in intensity. Yet he is often a little too stolid, with a tame gallop in “Wilde Jagd,” an overly measured climax in “Eroica” and an enervated take on the 10th etude. Gerstein’s recording is an admirable achievement, but it does not quite transcend Liszt’s keyboard acrobatics to reach a higher plane of musical expression.