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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Études d'exécution transcendante, (Transcendental Studies), S.139 (1852)
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
rec. 2015, Siemens-Villa, Berlin-Lankwitz
Reviewed as a stereo DSD64 download from NativeDSD
Pdf booklet included
MYRIOS CLASSICS MYR019 SACD [64:00]

With Francesco Piemontesi’s outstanding performance of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage: Suisse still fresh in my mind, I thought it time to hear the Russian-American pianist Kirill Gerstein in the composer’s Études d'exécution transcendante. Michael Cookson greeted this album with his customary enthusiasm, which made me even more curious to audition it. As it happens, I also have the 24/96 download of Daniil Trifonov’s version, recorded in the same venue – the Siemens-Villa, Berlin – three months earlier. That performance, part of a 2-CD set from Deutsche Grammophon, impressed Stephen Greenbank so much he made it a Recording of the Month.

These 12 studies, published in 1852 and derived from works Liszt wrote in 1826 and 1837, allow virtuoso pianists to strut their stuff. The wide dynamics also demand a great deal of the recording team, who, in DG’s case, capture Trifonov’s bold pianism well enough. And if you sense a ‘but…’ in there somewhere, you’d be right (more anon). No, the biggest challenge is to play these coruscating pieces in a way that combines substance with showmanship. I can’t fault Trifonov’s technique – his runs and roulades are simply breath-taking – although I feel insights are in short supply. Finesse is well within his purview, though, the Ricordanza exquisitely turned.

In Liszt at least, the current crop of keyboard wizards – Piemontesi (Orfeo), Gábor Farkas (Steinway) and Alexandre Kantorow (BIS) – achieve a pleasing balance between the Dionysian and Apollonian aspects of this composer’s oeuvre. And good engineering is a must: those labels all deliver a depth and richness of sound that does full justice to Liszt’s inexhaustible talent. Alas, for all its clarity and weight, the DG recording is just too analytical, and that quickly impinged on my listening pleasure. As for Myrios, a preliminary listen to this download suggests they place a much higher premium on good sonics.

Tech talk aside, does this album deliver musically? Gerstein’s Prelude is certainly encouraging, not least because it’s nicely proportioned. By that I mean it’s built on a human scale, and that brings listeners much closer to the music. With the almost superhuman Trifonov, one feels more like a spectator than a participant, which, by definition, introduces a degree of detachment. It helps that the Myrios recording – masterminded by Stephan Cahen – is so involving, the warm, well-balanced sound far preferable to DG’s comparatively shallow, chromium-plated presentation. Also, colour and detail are dramatically enhanced, and not at the expense of excitement, either (cue Gerstein’s Molto vivace).

What glorious, full-bodied pianism this is, and how spontaneous, the jewelled loveliness of Paysage a wonder to behold. And what a pleasure to hear so much air around the notes, and to be reminded of just how much the body of the piano itself contributes to what we hear. That may seem a bit fanciful, but it’s so unusual to find a solo recording that generates such a heightened awareness of the interaction between artist and instrument. In turn, this makes for a startling intimacy, a very profound and powerful sense of ‘being there’; that, too, is very rare.

Apart from roaming the keyboard with such agility and aplomb – is there any challenge he can’t meet, any hurdle he can’t vault? – Gerstein really brings out the percussive nature of Mazeppa. That it doesn’t have another, less welcome ‘edge’ is testament to the splendid recording. As for the Siemens-Villa, I can’t remember when it’s sounded this good. But, most of all, what the Gerstein/Myrios partnership reveals is the sheer audacity of Liszt’s musical mind. As I’ve said before, the very best recordings represent a confluence of talents, both musical and technical, and this collaboration is a fine example of that happy state.

Gerstein’s Feux follets falls like a soft spring rain, with bursts in between, the restless Vision beautifully shaped and articulated. Here, especially, it’s very clear that while Trifonov obeys the letter of these scores, Gerstein divines its guiding spirit. In so doing, he also taps into a varied and thoughtful narrative that belies Liszt’s undeserved reputation as a mere spinner of notes. Just listen to how expressive Gerstein can be, even in big, bold numbers such as Eroica and Wilde Jagd, which can seem a tad relentless at times. Incidentally, another pleasing characteristic of this recording is that closing notes and chords are allowed to decay in the most natural and atmospheric way. The pedal action is audible, but not distractingly so.

Without doubt, Ricordanza is the highlight of Trifonov’s performance. That said, Gerstein, less moulded, is also more inward. What a gorgeous, singing line, too. And if you think Liszt playing doesn’t come much better than this, you’d be half right, for Gerstein’s Allegro agitato molto is even more of a revelation. What a phenomenal range he has, and how fearlessly he uses it. Indeed, if this were an assault on a daunting peak, he’d scale it with all the confidence and skill of a seasoned mountaineer.

But the summit has not yet been reached, Gerstein’s finely calibrated Harmonies du soir is even finer than that of the otherwise admirable Piemontesi (it’s a filler on his album). The final number, Chasse-neige, is certainly a zenith of sorts, reaching technical and expressive heights of its own. After such an arduous ascent, one might be forgiven a degree of tiredness; that one actually feels alert and exhilarated is due to the dexterity and good judgment of this remarkable pianist (with a little help from Cahen and his team). Detailed liner-notes complete a top-quality product.

Extraordinary pianism that strikes a perfect balance between impetuosity and insight; bar-raising sonics, too.

Dan Morgan

Previous review: Michael Cookson




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