LISZT: Transcendental Etudes – Kirill Gerstein, p. – Myrios Classics

Pianist Kirill Gerstein and producer Stephan Cahen deliver a titanic rendition of the Liszt magnum opus.

LISZT: Transcendental Etudes, S. 139 – Kirill Gerstein, p. – Myrios Classics multichannel SACD MYR019, 64:00 (9/9/16) *****:

The genesis for Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes extends backwards in time to the composer’s thirteenth year (1824), when he planned to compete with J.S. Bach to conceive cycles of etudes in all the keys of the chromatic scale, major and minor. Liszt returned to the scheme in 1826, but he finally published his set of 12 in 1838. In his review of the 1838 version, Robert Schumann called the études “studies in storm and dread for, at the most, ten or twelve players in the world.” In 1852 Liszt prepared another edition – somewhat toned down in bravura and technical brilliance – and this version bore the title Études d’exécution transcendante. Kirill Gerstein (b. 1979) has recorded (December 2015) the Liszt Etudes with a declared intention of illuminating both their technical and spiritual notions of transcendence.

Performing on a Steinway & Sons D-274, Gerstein manages a ravishing and percussive tonal palette. We might proceed directly to his realization of Etude No. 6 Vision, to appreciate what diversity of color applies to the various tremolos and melodic periods that define the piece, somewhat in the manner of Bruckner’s symphonic building-blocks. The writing seems incredibly dense, Lento arpeggios that swell and mount to a clangorous peroration, con strepito, which Gerstein makes sensuously attractive. The opening diptych, Preludio and Molto vivace (a capriccio), function as preliminary warm-up exercises in applied demonism. Paysage, however, invokes in its 6/8 idyll – sempre legato e placido – the transcendentalist power of landscape, the sense of Wordsworth’s natural piety. My own favorite, Wilde Jagd – originally my having succumbed to a performance by Ovchinnikov – projects a volatile hunt that rushes out, Presto furioso and triple forte. The persistent thundering and rhythmic urgency – and here we invoke the Mazeppa Etude – can all too easily become redundant, but Gerstein – like Cziffra – balances its huge sonorities and driven prowess with melodic suppleness. In La Ricordanza, Gerstein manages his perhaps most Mediterranean affect, the A-flat Major Etude’s emerging and growing in the manner of a huge ballade devoted to nostalgia.
A brilliant keyboard discourse for the heart and the mind, the Transcendental Etudes approach virtually every kind of keyboard technique and effect, but the cumulative impression Gerstein leaves us with approaches Dante’s notion of a spiritual odyssey of imaginative ecstasies. When such a true fusion of Ratio and Eros occurs, we call it grace!

—Gary Lemco

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