Review: Liszt Transcendental Studies

Richly satisfying performances capture the symphonic grandeur of Liszt’s notoriously difficult works.

Schumann sealed the reputation of the Transcendental Studies when he observed that they were probably too difficult for anyone to play other than Liszt himself. Seen as milestones in the piano literature (and millstones for hapless pianists), these demanding works have their origins in a set of 12 studies published by the young Liszt in 1826. He extensively re-worked the pieces in 1837 while on the road as an itinerant virtuoso, but later toned them down during his Weimar years to produce the version which is usually performed today – the impressively titled Études d’exécution transcendante (1852). These additionally contain programmatic titles derived from literary sources or suggestive of moods. Dedicated to his former piano teacher Carl Czerny, the Transcendental Studies go far beyond the demands of Czerny’s own, for they test the limits of the pianist, the piano (and occasionally the listener). Since the pianist’s technical proficiency is assumed, the real challenge in these works is to make the virtuosity subservient to the poetic content.  Ferruccio Busoni was surely spot on with the title “Bravour-Studies” in his edition of Liszt’s works, although the lofty sounding Transcendental Studies does have an aura about it.

In this new release from Centaur Records, the young Italian pianist Sebastian di Bin gives a spirited account of these works. He is particularly at home with the larger scale studies which are almost symphonic in their dimensions, sustaining the atmosphere and drama over the many changes in texture and mood.

Following the opening improvisatory Preludio (which he avoids over-egging), he gives an edgy performance of the second study, never losing sight of the insistent four-note motif amidst the pyrotechnics. The close miking of the piano unfortunately detracts somewhat from his playing in the peaceful third study Paysage where Liszt’s detailed markings require frequent pedal use. However, for the awe-inspiring fourth study Mazeppa, di Bin is on cracking form with confident octave passages, death defying double note skips and a fine orchestral dimension to the sound.  I particularly liked his handling of the quieter central section: with the gentle lilt he gives the melody, it could easily pass for a chorus from a Verdi opera!

The beguiling Feux follets, with its fearsome double-notes and intricately written score, is not for the faint-hearted. However di Bin’s control and articulation of the inner voices is exemplary and in the final arpeggio ripples one glimpses the sound world of Ravel. Di Bin also shows superb control in the slow development of Vision, a sombre work, which builds to a triumphant climax. Better still is his account of the rhythmic, edgy and impassioned Wilde Jagd with an ending that has you on the edge of your seat.  But my favourite track has to be his winning performance of the great Harmonies du Soir. With its mysterious harmonies , it’s a wonderfully evocative piece which di Bin handles beautifully, from the warmly nostalgic opening through the ardent climax to the quietly reflective ending.

Performance: 4 stars
Recording: 3 stars.

Kevin Painting

Published 9 June 2016 on primephonic


Liszt Transcendental StudiesLiszt: Transcendental Etudes, S.139 (complete)

Sebastian Di Bin, piano

Centaur Records. CENCRC 3479.