Classical Music for All is the musical blog of the Pianist Boris Giltburg. For more articles see here.

Image: Johann Wilhelm Cordes - Die Wilde Jagd - Unfinished 1856/57

Liszt — 12 Études d'exécution transcendante, La Leggierezza, Rigoletto: Paraphrase de concert

Franz Liszt was one of the very first musical superstars, standing out from the ranks of 19th-century piano virtuosos. He is also the only one of them whose compositions continue to be widely performed to this day. Liszt’s ambitions were most likely triggered in 1832, when after hearing Niccolò Paganini at a concert, the 21-year-old determined to become as great a virtuoso on the piano as Paganini was on the violin. In this he succeeded brilliantly: his career as a touring pianist lasted only eight years (1839–47), but during that time his tours blazed all over Europe, leaving in their wake admiring, unbelieving audiences, swooning ladies, and broken pianos and hearts.

Stunning technique, a charismatic stage presence, and the solo piano concert format which he invented and whose name he coined himself—the recital—all contributed to the frenzied reaction of his audiences, an effect which Heinrich Heine described as ‘Lisztomania’. His musicality and unique sound production were mentioned too, but the repertoire usually relied heavily on breath-taking bravura and pianistic fireworks. The most popular works were his Grand galop chromatique and several of his fiendishly difficult opera arrangements.

Virtuosos are defined by their technique, and here, too, Liszt differed from his colleagues and rivals. At that time many a virtuoso’s claims to fame were based on a single technical device, such as Sigismond Thalberg’s ‘three-hands effect’ (in which a melody is played by alternating thumbs in the middle of the keyboard, surrounded by arpeggios above and below). Today this may seem like nothing special, but in the 1830s Thalberg’s effect was new and caused a sensation; audience members would stand up from their seats to see how it was done.

Liszt, on the other hand, employed an all-encompassing technique, in which an invention such as Thalberg’s would be just one tool among numerous others (he indeed uses it in Vision to great effect). This encyclopedic approach is seen throughout his compositions, and perhaps nowhere as clearly or in as concentrated a form as in the cycle of 12 Études d’exécution transcendante.

As an aside, études (‘studies’) seem to lead a dual life. On the one hand, they can be systematic, thorough exercises by composers such as Cramer and Czerny, which many of us learning the piano encountered during our early years. Those studies could be of great help in developing one’s technique, but—with rare exceptions—are not very musically exciting. On the other hand, études can be rich, alluring worlds locked behind walls of foreboding technique, such as in the cycles of Chopin, Liszt, Scriabin, Debussy, Rachmaninov and Ligeti, to name just a few.

Piano technique is what unites the two worlds, and the continuous composition of études by composers of this calibre for over two centuries suggests an enduring fascination with the technical, physical side of piano-playing, as well as a desire to push beyond the boundaries reached by previous generations of composers. Virtuosity can sometimes appear empty, yet at the same time we seem to be drawn to it: there is something mesmerising and exhilarating in watching a master of any craft in their element, accomplishing feats which appear beyond what is commonly possible.

Liszt’s fascination with the genre goes back to his youth. The version of the Études recorded here was referred to by Liszt as the ‘only authentic’ one, when he completed it in 1852. It was, however, the second major revision of a cycle he first wrote at the age of 15. That early cycle of twelve pieces is significantly simpler in its technical demands, but it is unexpectedly touching to find that nearly all of the melodic ideas of the final version of the Études were already present in some form in the 15-year-old’s imagination, including the highly poetic theme of what was to become Harmonies du soir (‘Evening Harmonies’) (the études in the first and second versions lack titles).

The early version also allows us to see the huge leap in Liszt’s development eleven years later. The first revision, completed in 1837, is light-years ahead, both in its technical challenges, and more importantly in the complexity of its structures and sonorities, and the richness of its imagination. The composer who wrote the 1837 version was a complete master of the keyboard, and saw his instrument’s possibilities as essentially boundless. If there is anything to reproach, it is that sometimes the technical demands were too high, the structures overly elaborate, and some of the études over-long. Schumann praised the set highly in his review in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in 1839, but doubted he would find more than two handfuls of pianists who could play it.

The final revision, written a few years after Liszt concluded his career as a touring virtuoso, further refined the sonorities and removed those difficulties that were there for their own sake. Liszt concentrated on the atmospheric and evocative elements in the études, and simplified the structures, making extensive cuts (though in one instance, Ricordanza, he added a beautiful lyrical introduction). Liszt did not set out to make this revision as wide-ranging as the first one, but he ended up polishing and re-writing to such an extent that the final version stands as a completely independent work, one which in my opinion balances the musical and technical elements to perfection.

The integration of these two elements forms the fabric of the Études. The technique has become an inseparable part of the whole, rather than an obstacle to be overcome in order to gain access to the music; the passage-work is the music itself, the building material from which the image behind the notes is created.

This is most easily heard in the physicality of many of the Études. Liszt knew how to lean fully into the keyboard, using the sheer bulk of the notes to create a sense of immediate, visceral presence: the chromatic scales that are the howling winds in Chasse-neige (‘Snow Storm’), the vicious arpeggio whiplashes at the beginning of Mazeppa, the crashing stampede of alternating octaves in Wilde Jagd (‘Wild Hunt’). Similarly, articulation is often used to create or heighten a mood, as in, for example, the detaché and staccato of the shimmering Feux follets (‘Will-o’-the-wisps’) or the deep, finger-bound legato in Paysage (‘Landscape’) creating a sense of tranquil, slow movement.

Devices which in other circumstances could be purely technical, are here used for storytelling and to paint images; Chasse-neige could be a ‘study of tremolos’, but the tremolos are the eponymous snowstorm. Soft in the beginning, just enough to envelop the melody as if obscuring it behind gently falling snow, they then grow to an almost terrifying avalanche in the reprise. The sequences of ascending thirds in the middle voices of Mazeppa are perhaps the most difficult challenge in the entire cycle, but they are there for a reason, depicting the galloping and cantering of a wild horse (see below for the étude’s backstory).

Colour and sound production play as important a role. Liszt imagined an orchestral richness of sonorities: fanfares blazing in Eroica and Vision, hunters’ horns calling in the middle section of Wilde Jagd, and a whole carillon of bells in the climaxes of Harmonies du soir. But it is not always about the decibels: Liszt also uses extremes of register masterfully in order to create illusions of distance, like the gentle fading away of the right-hand octaves at the end of Paysage, as if the landscape receded gradually from our view, or the layering of quiet bells near and far in the opening of Harmonies du soir.

Perhaps we should see Liszt’s cycle as bridging the two different approaches to the composition of études—musical inspiration and methodical instruction. The title he eventually chose, Études d’exécution transcendante, is usually translated as ‘Transcendental Studies’, but is probably closer to ‘Studies for Superlative Execution’. This could imply that not only superlative technique was needed to do the Études justice, but also (or maybe even rather) that by studying and mastering the cycle one could attain such a technique.

The huge scope and variety of challenges in the cycle could also mean that, in Liszt’s view, superlative execution encompassed much more than a mastery of technical difficulties ticked off a checklist (octaves, sixths, thirds, trills, tremolos, etc.; though these are all thoroughly covered by the Études). It had also to include a mastery of touch, articulation, pedalling, with an ability to use all of these elements to conjure up a powerful image. The Études may thus have a third function: as a compendium of Liszt’s knowledge of piano technique at that time, and a brilliant demonstration of what could be accomplished at the keyboard.

I have talked at length about technique, but in the end the cycle’s popularity would not endure for 170 years if it were not for its exciting musical content. The Études perfectly express the spirit of High Romanticism: wild and unbounded, favouring extremes of both emotion and sound, pushing against the physical limits of the keyboard: Liszt included several ossia (‘alternative’) passages that were to be played if the pianist possessed a keyboard with what would then be considered an extended range, similar to that of modern-day pianos. The fantastical, colourful and gripping images created by many of the Études show a real boldness of vision, using the piano as a means to explore hitherto unknown territories—the very definition of transcendent.

Briefly, regarding a few of the Études’ titles:

Mazeppa refers to Ivan Mazeppa, a Ukranian noble who according to legend was caught in flagrante with a Polish noblewoman and punished by her husband, who tied Mazeppa naked to a wild horse and set it loose. He survived three gruelling days tied to the horse’s back, reached a Cossack encampment and succeeded in becoming their leader. This legend was made into a narrative poem by Lord Byron, inspiring numerous paintings, plays, stories and other poems, including one by Victor Hugo. It was the latter which served as inspiration for Liszt. He quotes Hugo in the end: ‘Il tombe enfin!… et se relève Roi!’ – ‘he falls at last!… and arises as King!’

Feux follets (‘Will-o’-the-wisps’) are shimmering lights seen at dusk and at night over swamps or marshes. The name may also refer to the Walpurgis Night scene from Goethe’s Faust, in which the Will-o’-the-wisps appear as minor characters.

Wilde Jagd refers to an old Germanic legend of a horde of ghostly or supernatural hunters passing in wild pursuit, often depicted as flying through the air.

Closing the album, La leggierezza (‘Lightness’) is the middle piece of Trois Études de concert. It was written in 1848 and published a year later, soon after Liszt stopped his touring career and settled down in Weimar, and before he undertook the last revision of his main Études cycle. It is in my opinion one of the best études Liszt has composed: a perfectly shaped structural arch with a heartfelt, naturally flowing melody, which evolves into a filigree virtuosic mesh of rare beauty and elegance.

The opening piece of the album is not an étude, but belongs to another of Liszt’s favourite genres—the opera paraphrase. These were tremendously popular with audiences, and Liszt wrote around 70 in total, first for himself to perform on tour and later for other piano virtuosos. The Paraphrase de concert sur Rigoletto (‘Concert paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto’) belongs in the second group: Liszt wrote it in 1859 for Hans von Bülow, his son-in-law and former student.

Rather than presenting a potpourri of various numbers from the opera, as was common, here Liszt arranges just a single episode: the famous quartet from Act III, in which Gilda, with her father Rigoletto by her side, witnesses the unfaithfulness of the Duke as he courts Maddalena. Liszt faithfully preserves Verdi’s dramatic structure and tonal sequence, simply adding an introduction, repeating one section in the middle, and writing a purely pianistic coda full of bravura (it was to be a stand-alone concert piece after all!). He employs his complete mastery of colour and piano technique to effortlessly combine four voices and their accompaniment, while vividly filling the nocturnal scene with atmosphere. It is, I believe, a wonderful introduction to Liszt’s approach to the piano—a seamless, ingenious integration of musicality and technique.

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