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Mordecai Shehori plays LISZT, Vol. 3 = Etude en douze exercises, Op. 1; Etudes d’execution Transcendante; Impromptu Brillant sur des Themes de Rossini et Spontini, Op. 3; Complete Transcendental Etudes  – Mordecai Shehori, piano – Cembal d’amour CD 191 (2 CDs) 63:45; 58:30 [www.cembaldamour.com] ****:

A scholar-pianist of utmost intellectual scrutiny and poetic sensibility, Mordecai Shehori (rec. 2018) reconsiders the magnum opus of Liszt, his Transcendental Etudes (1839; rev. 1952) from a variety of perspectives, not the least of which involves the close examination of autograph facsimiles, independent letters, biographical information, and finalized versions of the scores.  A careful consideration of accidentals, enharmonic notes, repeats, and arioso or cadenza passages, has led Shehori to apply especial dynamics or tempos in the context of Liszt’s deliberate usage of rhetorical devices to achieve his intended effect.  We have, then, some old Liszt in quite new bottles, and the refreshed results should bring joy, pleasure, and spectacular color to music too often maligned for its vacuous, percussive  bravura or display-value, rather than for the singing delicacy Liszt could construe for his chosen instrument.

That the 13-16-year-old Liszt could conceive of a series of etudes that fashion an original keyboard style itself constitutes a miracle in art.  Shehori sets each of the early exercises against its later incarnation for immediate comparison and study. Even in its early state, the C Major Op. No. 1 calls for sonorous articulation and a vocal sense of the keyboard. The Preludio, its Transcendental evolution, fills out the texture in the grand style.  The A minor from Op. 1 contains a ‘walking narrative’ as well as spun arpeggios. Rapid staccatos infiltrate the dramatic progression. Its Transcendental heir expansively elaborates on the sense of gesture, the grace notes and high and low octave flourishes even more integral to the sense of contrast, especially in the bass line.  Already, the musical illusion of a ‘third hand’ makes its presence known. The piece ends in a mock-Beethoven “fate” motif.  The F Major, Op. 1, No. 3 relaxes the affect, and it will become the Paysage study.  Here, the narrator contemplates aspects of Nature, much as does Berlioz in the third movement of his Symphonie fantastique.  The Op. 1 version contrasts a martial air with a bemused, transparent texture. The harmonic and formal growth exemplified in the 1852 version provides a study in itself, since Liszt’s ear has imbibed every sort of aural refinement. The structure has clearly absorbed an operatic strategy, a duet that alternates the principals. The Op. 1, No. 4 in D minor will later become the heroic Mazeppa Etude that Liszt also conceived as a brilliant, orchestral tone-poem.  The original has little of its later embodiment: simply a series of broken-chord runs in staccato.  The latter version’s opening sequence alone incorporates much of Chopin.  In his liner notes, Shehori mentions the Scottish virtuoso Frederick Lamond as a true Liszt disciple whose example Shehori means himself to be.  The melodic line in Mazeppa evolves through staggered eruptions of itself, interrupted by lightening runs. The secondary, ‘Hungarian’ motif, sings in illumined harmony, a vision of a patriotic martyr. Mid-way, the broken chords and the agogic accents adumbrate much in the Mephisto Waltz. The ‘symphonic’ scale of the writing appeals to Shehori, who can peal thunder from his keyboard at will.

Portrait Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt

The Op. 1, No. 5 in B-flat Major calls for a rapid, light arpeggios, smooth scalar passages, and crisp sfzorzatos, but in lyrical mode.  The left hand articulation becomes quite demanding, especially in the delineation of scales.  The Feux-Follets as we know it demands leggierissimo extraordinaire, diminished sevenths, chromatics, and fiendishly conceived double notes in mixed intervals.  Shehori’s leaping left hand, quasi pizzicato, warrants some applause.  A special sound emerges early in the 1839 Op. 1, No. 6 in G minor: its manic repetitions in light colors has a music-box effect, although the bass retains its virile power. The Vision of 1852, thought Busoni, meant to convey Emperor Napoleon’s funeral.  The arpeggios cascade in a procession that might have their impetus in the opening of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. But the Liszt sensibility expands beyond a mere evocation into a thundering ode whose middle section sets off explosions much like those in Chopin’s C minor Etude, Op. 25, No. 12.  The latter portion of Vision moves into harmonic apotheosis, the aural world inhabited in his Dante Sonata. Shehori graces us with a rarity, the Impromptu in E Major, Op. 3 (1825), the fourteen-year-old Liszt’s elaboration on Spontini and Rossini operatic gestures that simultaneously adumbrate his Eroica Etude.  Histrionic and grandiose, the piece relishes a polonaise rhythm in which the right hand extemporizes in coloratura fashion. Rossini’s La donna del lago and Armide provide a number of allusions and opportunities for variants. Those melodies appear in D Major, while Spontini’s airs from Fernand Cortez and Olimpie (chorus) appear in E Major. The Eroica Etude – in the identical key and temper as the Beethoven Third Symphony – deliberately approaches an orchestral sonority – the same opening as in the Impromptu – with designations for quasi corni and quasi trombe in a martial tempo tempered by tenuto and deft accents. The double notes abound, which Shehori negotiates with that same aplomb that his esteemed teacher, Mindru Katz, demonstrates in examples like those bravura passages in the A Major Concerto.

In its first form, the C minor Etude of Op. 1 bears the earmarks of Chopin, almost a practice series of minor scales whose main melody must reign over a moto perpetuo.  The “real” Transcendental, supernatural hunt opens with a bombardment in octaves (presto fuoco) answered by dramatic gallops.  The hunt tune itself appears in E-flat Major. Liszt’s scalar runs embrace the interval of a fifth, and the desire for legato in the midst of a ‘wild ride’ (and punishing wrist articulation) has a responsive realization from Shehori.  Even in its initial form, the Op. 1, No. 9 in A-flat Major drips with nostalgia, “a packet of faded love-letters” (Busoni). The main idea bears the marking dolce, con grazia.  Under Shehori’s hands, La Ricordanza bears the affect of one of the Petrarch sonnet-settings. Chains of arpeggios flow or melt into a lyric in the Italian style, touched by nuance and liberated trills. The central section intimates some passionate encounter and its aftermath. The clarity and unbroken urgency of the line remind us of Shehori’s admiration for soprano Bidu Sayao.  Perhaps the most elusive of all the studies, Op. 1, No. 10 in F minor introduces a darkly chromatic line, which in its fully mature form Liszt marks Allegro agitato molto.  The secondary theme proves just as insistent, marked in rhetorical periods and bass flourishes. Busoni wanted the Transcendental Etude called Appassionato. The indications tempestoso, disperato, and precipitato will become standard for the likes of Scriabin and Prokofiev.  Triplets and passionate octaves extend to both extremes of the keyboard, yet there resides an uncanny poise and security in the melodic line, Virgil and Dante resolute even in the midst of Inferno.

What next ensues comes in the form of Liszt’s Exercise in E-flat Major, Op. 1, No. 7, the basis for Eroica; but the early version for the later meditation, Harmonies du Soir, arrives at the end of CD 2, the Exercise in D-flat.  The early piece in E-flat conveys little of imaginative musing, but rather presents some agitated figures – a la Bach – in contrary motion. A kind of operatic flourish in Italian style closes the piece. Liszt sets his (independent) Transcendental Etude in D-flat Major, the same key as Chopin’s haunting nocturne from Op. 27.  The left hand in the central section means to imitate the sound of the harp. The suspended melody lingers, often in droplet form.  The passion does rise and then yields to “an intimate sentiment” in E Major. The repetitions of the melodic line illustrate Shehori’s point about Liszt’s use of enharmonies to signify emotional inflection. This passionate theme achieves a glorious climax, then it recedes into the veiled mist in soft chords. The original setting for Chasse-Neige (snow whirls) seems more static in its form as an Exercise in B-flat minor.  Barely two minutes in length to perform, its bass line captures our fancy more than the broken-arch melody.  Long periods of tremolos provide the challenge for the performer, who must maintain the progress of the piece in alternating chords and colors, while the music conveys the “blizzard” of emotion that we likewise find in Schubert. Listen to the stunning bass line that equals the best in Old School Romantic pianists, like Hofmann. The finale has its own grandiosity in octaves – Quasi cadenza – taking us into the unknown in rising figures.

—Gary Lemco

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