Claudio Arrau (1903-1991) recorded the Liszt Transcendental Etudes quadraphonically for Philips at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam in March 1974. Arrau came to the music of Liszt early, by way of his main teacher Martin Krause. Curiously, Arrau’s Liszt remained fairly intact, tempo-wise, even into his later years; unlike his Chopin, which became progressively slower and stodgier. While no keyboard company is credited on the recording, Arrau tended to favor Bechsteins for their heavy action and solidity. There persists in Arrau’s approach and sonority always something Teutonic, even a degree of rigidity; but his realizations are never less than thoughtful, often pungent and intellectual. That he can arouse poetry in his playing comes forth in several of the Etudes, such as Feux follets, La Ricordanza, and Harmonies du soir. For pearly play, few can match Arrau for its limpid, crystalline articulation, the muscularity of his line, say, in Wild Jagd. Both Eroica and Mazeppa are old-school flame-throwers, rife with double octaves and swooning, grand rhetoric. Yet what we might lack is a sense of spontaneity: with Arrau, little is left to chance. Like Michelangeli, Arrau devises his effects with meticulous care, especially with an eye to the arching of phrase. The “Heifetz of the Piano,” Arrau fuses absolute technical finesse with bravura gestures, much as Liszt wrote his etudes as responses to Paganini’s violin artistry.
Several of the etudes derive their effect directly from the example of Paganini’s Caprices, like the Prelude (No. 1) and the Allegro agitato molto (No. 10), both of which approximate the violin’s bariolage technique, even as they exploit the piano’s fiercer capacity for counterpoint. Huge stretches compete with a demand for a plastic, smooth line, so each effect must resonate seamlessly. Several of the etudes (Vision and Harmonies du soir) adumbrate the harmonic world of Debussy and even Schoenberg; certainly Rachmaninov had many of them in mind as models for his own late variations and etudes-tableaux. Arrau’s pedal in Harmonies is particularly active: he openly admired Gieseking as a colorist, though not in German music. Even the parlando elements in Liszt gain dramatic momentum from Arrau, as he spaces declamatory or detached notes with rolling arpeggios. When the piano unleashes a torrent of sound, by Arrau the effect becomes thoroughly orchestral. The angular, modal storms of the last entry, Chasse neige, point to dark, even alien worlds Berg and Schiele would explore in their respective art forms. Arrau makes the journey infinitely mighty and profound, colossal and fiercely penetrating at once. Polyhymnia’s analogue four-channel sound restoration is top of the line.
— Gary Lemco