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Hyperion Records

CDA66973 - Liszt: The complete music for solo piano, Vol. 34 – Douze Grandes Études
CDA66973
Recording details: October 1994
Unknown, Unknown
Produced by Tryggvi Tryggvason
Engineered by Tryggvi Tryggvason
Release date: July 1995
Total duration: 75 minutes 41 seconds

'Howard brings his customary technical wizardry to bear on this outrageously difficult music in an arresting virtuoso display' (Gramophone)

'La virtuosité roborative de Leslie Howard trouve ici son meilleur emploi' (Diapason, France)

The complete music for solo piano, Vol. 34 – Douze Grandes Études
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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Liszt completed the ‘Twelve Great Studies’ in October 1837, and they were published the following year. Schumann gave them the most enthusiastic notice, but lamented that only their composer would ever be able to play them, such was their technical requirement. Nonetheless, his wife Clara immediately learned the ninth of them, and by degrees they enjoyed at the very least an infamy, if not quite a popularity, amongst performers, and became the stuff of legend to audiences. Of course, the versions which are regularly performed today, the Douze Études d’exécution transcendante of 1851 (recorded in Volume 4 of this series), were essentially simplifications of the present set, with a number of cuts, recastings and musical second thoughts and decked with titles. But the almost absurd level of difficulty of the 1837 set lends it a particular devil-may-care quality which one can observe in the early operatic fantasies, the Album d’un voyageur and the Magyar Rapszódiák. This quality is one which has brought much unwarranted criticism upon Liszt’s head: the musical value of the works remains incontestable, and it is on the poor performer’s head that all complaint should fall if the undeniable struggle to overcome the most taxing demands should obscure the fundamental clarity and simple beauty of the musical discourse. That these works’ inner nature is simple and straightforward suggests itself from their history: Liszt took music composed in his childhood (precocious source material, to be sure) as the basis for studies in musical expression seen through the virtue of complete technical accomplishment. In short, musical virtuosity—the first principle of all great études.

For those who know and love the 1851 Studies a word of warning: despite the many similarities of text, the 1837 pieces often have rather a different character from the later set, especially because of different tempo indications and some very specific instructions for tempo rubato for which Liszt devised his own armory of symbols (for short pauses and for slight retardations and accelerations of particular groups of notes).

Liszt had composed his Étude en douze exercices at the age of fourteen (see Volume 26 of this series)—all that he wrote of the 48 pieces originally announced. When he came to the 1837 set he originally announced 24 pieces, no doubt intending to go cyclically through all the keys, but, as before, he drew the line at 12, and thus offers works on the ‘flat’ side only of the circle of fifths. (As is well known, Lyapunov composed a complementary set of Douze Études d’exécution transcendante in homage to Liszt, through all the ‘sharp’ keys.) It is instructive to compare all the versions of these works, so we may observe straightaway that the 1837 pieces match number for number with the 1851 versions, but that there is a small change of plan between the 1826 and the 1837 sets: No 7 of the juvenile set is transposed and reworked into No 11, and the original number 11 is discarded. The replacement No 7 is a new composition, but it uses material from the introduction to the early Impromptu sur des thèmes de Rossini et Spontini (also in Volume 26).

The 1837 Studies are, like the later versions, inscribed to Carl Czerny, Liszt’s sometime teacher, and the opening piece is a dedicatory flourish to that kindly pedagogue. It is probably this piece to which Liszt refers as a ‘Preludio-Studio’ in a letter of 1838, and the final version, only very slightly revised, bears the title Preludio.

The Second Study, marked ‘Molto vivace a capriccio’, presents a technique of repeated notes where the first is struck by the index finger and the second by the thumb, accompanied by its octave with the fifth finger—a technique only employed by Liszt in a few early works, and much better suited to the pianos of the 1830s than to the modern machine, with its ungratefully heavy repetition mechanism. It must have been a problem even for the instruments and performers of the 1850s, too, because all trace of this technique is expunged from the final version.

When Liszt titled the 1851 version of the Third Study Paysage (‘Landscape’) he altered its atmosphere to accord with this new suggestion. It remains interesting that the speedy juvenile effort in 4/4 is already transformed into a ‘Poco adagio’ in 6/8, but in the 1837 piece the climax yields an impassioned page of ‘Presto agitato assai’ which Liszt later deemed superfluous.

The Fourth Study originated without its melody in the simple crossed-hand exercise of 1826, and is en route to becoming the familiar Mazeppa. (A further version of this piece, titled Mazeppa, with a new introduction and coda and a dedication to Victor Hugo, was made in 1840. It was intended to include this work in the present volume, and the piece was recorded, but the restriction on the maximum playing-time of a compact disc proved the undoing of the plan, and the ‘extra’ Mazeppa will appear in a future volume.) Curiously, the 1837 version of the piece begins in a rather less complicated way than its 1851 counterpart, and plunges straight in to the principal material, with triplet chord accompaniment. Whereas in the final version the middle section takes the tempo down a fraction, here Liszt asks for a slight increase, and the whole texture is quite different. The coda, not yet having reference to Hugo’s poem, is brisk and concise.

How Liszt transformed his pretty little 1826 piece into the Fifth Study is a minor miracle. Of course the 1851 version, Feux-follets (‘Will-o’-the-wisps’), with its intricate double notes, needs no introduction. (Incidentally, this piece is often taken at far too fast a tempo in the hope that the listener will not hear that the difficulties have been diluted by a simplification of the inner voice in the right hand—even in some of the most celebrated performances. Liszt marked it ‘Egualmente’ in 1837, ‘Allegretto’ in 1851.) In the 1837 version the coda is marginally shorter, but otherwise the structure of the piece is familiar. The double notes and repeated chords are a good deal trickier than in the 1851 text.

In the Sixth Study Liszt has again transformed the whole notion of his 1826 prototype by changing the metre from duple to triple time. Although he dropped the idea in 1851, Liszt asks for the opening statement to be played by the left hand alone. Otherwise the piece resembles the later Vision quite closely, excepting a brief gesture at the reprise in double octaves and some daring harmony at the coda which even Liszt felt obliged to tone down in the later version.

In the thematic catalogue of his works which appeared during his lifetime, Liszt marks with an asterisk all those pieces which he requires to be played only in their final versions. The 1851 Studies are a case in point. We beg leave to differ from the master in this and in most other instances; a great man’s judgement of his own past work need not be uncritically revered, and besides, Liszt, in his almost careless abandonment of all his earlier productions, discards many pieces which never came to be revised. In the Seventh Study of the 1837 set we have a piece which is widely regarded to be superior to its 1851 revision: Eroica—it certainly holds together better, and the transition material from the introduction to the main theme (and its repetition towards the end) is altogether more convincing than the dotted rhythms which Liszt substituted in 1851. There is also a final variation of the theme which was later cut, where again Liszt takes a very avant garde harmonic position.

Liszt asks the impossible in the first bar of the Eighth Study: 42 notes in rapid fire are asked to be held in one pedal, and yet six melody notes in each hand are asked to be accentuated. This can very nearly be done on a piano of the 1830s, but Liszt wisely removed all the demi-semiquavers in the 1851 version. Nevertheless, the sheer pandemonium here and elsewhere where this theme occurs is undeniably effective. In 1851 Liszt removed a most striking idea: the third theme, which follows hard upon the second, dactylic hunting motif, keeps the metre and rhythm intact in the left hand, whilst the right hand picks out a new theme with one note to its every four, but in a metre which does not square arithmetically with the left hand—dizzying both to play and to hear. (Later, Liszt made the melody conform to the left hand.) The later title Wilde Jagd (‘Wild Hunt’) would have suited even better here.

Apart from the catches in the breath created by the addition in 1851 of rests at the beginning of each melodic group, the Ninth Study and the later Ricordanza are very similar. Here there are rather thicker chordal textures, and one or two disquieting dissonances towards the coda, but the same air of nostalgia is ineluctable. The 1826 forerunner of this piece remains the most astonishing piece of the juvenile set—the themes and harmonies were taken over almost unchanged in 1837, and the filigree decoration sets off their beauty in the subtlest way.

The Tenth Study, usually accounted to be the finest of the 1851 set, is even more imposing in the 1837 version, although Liszt’s later solution for the layout of the opening material produces a more restless effect by eliminating the demand for playing melody notes with the left hand in amongst double sixths in the right. In a very solid sonata structure, the 1837 text does not break the flow towards the end of the development, but does ask for some very awkward playing of enormous stretches. (Liszt’s hand almost certainly contracted as he grew older. Amy Fay reliably reports that the old Liszt could just take the black-note tenth chords at the end of the slow movement in Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata. In all his revisions Liszt removes or arpeggiates any interval greater than a ninth, whereas tenths and elevenths abound in the works from his years as a public performer.) The 1837 version has a much longer coda, which abruptly changes metre and becomes ferocious, in accordance with Liszt’s own performance directions.

The Eleventh piece begins similarly to its later version, with minor differences in the harmonic language, but the whole musical fabric of the second theme is much more complex, contrapuntally, rhythmically and harmonically. Before the second, grandiose, appearance of this theme there is an extended passage at great speed which Liszt dropped in the final version, presumably because it had nothing to do with the title now appended to the work: Harmonies du soir—‘Evening harmonies’. (The listeners who rightly complained that, in Volume 4 of this series, the opening phrases of Harmonies du soir utilised a harmonic alteration stemming from an edition made by one of Liszt’s later students rather than the 1851 text may be pacified to note that the 1837 harmony is exactly as Liszt gives it.)

When Liszt transformed the Twelfth Study into Chasse-neige (‘Snow flurry’) he introduced some chromatic thirds to reinforce the idea of the whirlwinds, and they may seem unexpectedly absent here. But in compensation there is a beautiful introduction which was later discarded, and which reappears at the recapitulation, where later we find a great many scales. In general, there is rather more of the tremolo in the 1837 version, and one or two typically pungent harmonic effects made more conventional in 1851. The final cadence, as in the later version, cannot be used to make a thunderous ending, and Liszt leaves us poised on a second-inversion triad, as if there might be more to come. But the only extant page of sketches for an F sharp major study which should have begun the second part of the enterprise clearly belongs to an abandoned continuation of the 1826 series. At the end, therefore, Liszt’s great compendium of virtuosity peacefully turns its back upon its vaunted object.

By way of a brief encore, and in the farthest tonality from the preceding piece (E minor/major), this programme concludes with the 1840 version of a study later reworked in 1852 with the title Ab Irato (‘In a rage’). The less assuming but more cumbersome title of the present version—composed, along with studies by such as Mendelssohn and Chopin for the famous piano manual of Moscheles and Fetis—reads in full: Morceau de salon—Étude deperfectionnement de la Méthode des Méthodes. This athletic little piece has a brief lyrical moment towards the coda (in the 1852 version the pace is slowed at this point) which bears only the most accidental and distant relationship to a theme from the symphonic poem Les Préludes—it seems a pity that some commentators have sought to establish a closer link—but which derives, in fact, from the group of three notes, now rising, now falling, which inform the whole work.

Leslie Howard © 1995


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