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Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes are a magnum opus and a lexicon of technique, including lyricism as well as outsized virtuosity. Previous recordings, notably by Lazar Berman and György Cziffra, have emphasised an explosive, cutting-edge brilliance that (in Cziffra’s case) comes with lurid distortion. So it’s fascinating to find Kirill Gerstein playing down the histrionics in favour of a vein of poetry never far from the surface of the work’s many outlandish difficulties. For all their overall mastery, these are deliberately restrained performances that go against the grain of convention.

As Gerstein himself says in his accompanying interview, the Transcendental Etudes have been subjected to too much speed and noise: their title surely implies something beyond the obvious. Nonetheless, there is an impressive flexing of muscles in the opening ‘Preludio’, while in ‘Paysage’ (No 3) he resists a temptation to languish or sentimentalise. ‘Feux Follets’ (No 5), described by Jean Muller as the most cruelly demanding of all etudes, is wittily detailed, the tempo closer to Liszt’s prescribed allegretto than, say, Richter’s manic pace.

There is a fine sense in the conclusions to Nos 6 (‘Vision’) and 11 (‘Harmonies du soir’) of sumptuous visions gradually receding. Elsewhere, you miss a greater sense of commitment to Liszt’s cause with a tendency to let the tension down.

The scale is smaller than from the infinitely grand Claudio Arrau, less urgent than from the previously mentioned Jean Muller. A sometimes overly modest view is also underlined by a recorded sound that, while warm and fluid, lacks immediacy. For virtuosity on a necessarily epic scale, Berman (whose performance inspired qualified praise from Solomon) remains a touchstone.

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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