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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
12 Transcendental Études, S139 (1852) [64:14]
2 Études de concert, S145 (1862)
Waldesrauschen [4:13]
Gnomenreigen [2:52]
Sheng Cai (Piano)
rec. 2018, Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto, Canada

This account of the Transcendental Études is the standard version from 1852, the last made of the three Liszt set. Back in March 2019 I reviewed Boris Giltburg’s performance on Naxos, finding it quite excellent though not surpassing Vladimir Ovchinikov’s scorching account on Warner Classics. Here, young Chinese-born Canadian pianist Sheng Cai enters a crowded field to take on these challenging masterworks. Cai studied at the Shanghai Conservatoire, Royal Conservatory of Toronto, and New England Conservatoire, and his teachers have included Russell Sherman (who thrice recorded the Transcendentals), Anton Kuerti and Gary Graffman. Cai has won numerous prizes in prestigious though not major competitions and regularly concertizes throughout North America, Latin America and Asia. This is his debut album on Atma Classique and apparently his first recording for any label.

He plays Preludio (No.1) quite well, finding a little more fire and colour than many pianists in this very brief warm up piece. The unnamed No. 2 comes across as intense and agitated, appropriately so, but then Cai also deftly adds a measure of playfulness and mischief to the mixture. A fine performance. Paysage is lovely in his hands, his legato phrasing not quite as lush as in other performances but effective still. Wisely, he does not attempt to overwhelm with Herculean forte dynamics at the climax. Clearly he captures the poetic side of Liszt compellingly.

Mazeppa (No. 4) gets a fine performance from the outset where the arpeggiated chords are curt and threatening and the runs that follow smooth and exciting. Everything works here, as octaves thrill, low chords toll ominously and powerfully, and dynamics fit in well with the emotional pitch of the music, all adding up to very good, demonic Liszt. The middle section contrasts nicely in its initial serenity and elegance but eventually Cai works up to a potent outburst. An excellent account. The ensuing Feux Follets, probably the most famous etude in the set, is mischievous and gossamer here, though Cai could show a bit more elegance and subtlety in certain quieter parts, as a more feathery touch brings out an even more ethereal atmosphere. Still, a good performance.
Vision begins darkly and effectively in its weight and deliberate gait. Cai highlights a more stately side of the work, as the music proceeds, but without short-changing the sinister elements and in the end, producing another fine entry in this set. Eroica is indeed heroic here, though a bit leaner than in many other rather muscular accounts. It is a fine performance by Cai, though I find this work, regardless of who performs it, a bit less effective than the other etudes in the set. In Wilde Jagt Cai deftly captures the shifting moods of the music, from its headlong gruffness and elegant playfulness to its fleet nervosity and anxious triumph. He confidently negotiates the wide leaps for both hands and overall turns in a fine account. That said, other pianists (Lazar Berman and Boris Berezovsky, to name just two) infuse the music with more fire so that it truly does become the title’s Wild Hunt.

Ricordanza (No. 9) and Harmonies du Soir (No. 11) are both lush, richly Romantic pieces, the latter a little more passionate and intense, especially at its climax. Cai delivers the lyrical themes in both with a nice legato touch and sensitive phrasing but also doesn’t downplay the sometimes churning and restless elements in the music. Indeed, the eruptive and explosive character of Harmonies at both the centre and the climax of the work comes through imposingly here. The unnamed F minor Etude (No. 10) gets a fine performance, but again there is a very slight lack of fire and thrust, despite Cai’s generally brisk tempos, ample dynamics and fine technique. Fire is called for in Chasse-neige too, but also a good measure of ice—the music depicts a snow storm with whirling winds. Cai paints that picture well, infusing the music with menace and urgency, storming the heights quite effectively. Still, in Giltburg’s recent account or the older one by Ovchinikov one hears somewhat more atmospheric and ultimately more convincing playing.

Cai delivers fine accounts of both Waldesrauschen and Gnomenreigen, though his dynamics in the former are a tad too strong in places. Still, his performances of them are quite solid overall. I would say in about half of the Transcendental Études Cai is arguably as good as anyone else, but in the others he falls a bit short, mainly because he comes across as a bit less driven or less spirited, and occasionally his dynamics in softer music aren’t light enough. As for the competition, I would still give the edge to Ovchinikov over the others, though Giltburg, Lazar Berman (Melodiya), Arrau (Philips), and Berezovsky (Apex) are very nearly as convincing in their very different ways. Russell Sherman’s 1976 Vanguard recording features tempos too slow for my taste, making me leery of exploring his later efforts on Albany and Avie. There is a terrific performance on video available on YouTube by Daniil Trifonov. If his recent DG recording is as good, he would certainly be in the running for a top spot. And speaking of YouTube, Sheng Cai can be heard there as well in several of these etudes in live but different performances, which will give you an idea of his style of playing here. As for the verdict on this recording, I can say Cai is a talent to watch, for sure, and his Transcendentals are very good indeed but outclassed by several other pianists.
Robert Cummings

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