Liszt: Etudes d'execution transcendante (CD review)

Alice Sara Ott, piano. DG 000289 477 8362 6

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) wrote his Etudes d'execution transcendante in 1826, revising them in 1838 and again in 1851. They are a set of short solo works daunting for even the most-experienced pianist, so why Alice Sara Ott at age nineteen chose to record such demanding music is anybody's guess. She says "I am, after all, a lion born in the year of the dragon!" She is certainly an accomplished virtuoso; maybe she wanted the challenge. Or maybe it was youthful exuberance, and she was just showing off.  In any case, she succeeds beyond her years.

Liszt's Etudes are pretty much the antithesis of his popular Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano. The Rhapsodies are easily accessible, hummable, vibrant, down-to-earth in their gypsy flair. The Etudes are more like concert studies written for other seasoned pianists to appreciate. The fact that very few other pianists have recorded all twelve of them is testament to record companies being leery of their selling. But Ms. Ott persuaded DG to let her try.

Etude No. 1 is brief and noisy, together with the equally loud No. 2 forming a kind of overture or curtain raiser for the set. These first two pieces are hardly subtle, but they demonstrate Ms. Ott's technical fluency.

A slow movement follows with the descriptive title "Landscapes," in which Ms. Ott takes her time to caress each note one by one. Here, in some of the most poetic passages in the set, she is at her best.

After the relative calm of the "Landscapes" comes "Mazzepa," a barnstorming section that must vex even the most-talented pianists, yet Ms. Ott copes with it handily.

No. 5, "Will-of-the-Wisp," is light and airy, with a hint of slightly sinister nighttime goings on. Liszt knew he needed these soothing, sometimes playful, interludes to offset the more hell-raising movements. Again, Ms. Ott seems to be enjoying herself.

"Vision" is the set's grandest segment, although it displays some degree of pomposity, too. Following that is "Eroica," a combination of the elegant, the sublime, and the simply tedious. Take your pick. It's no wonder that many pianists who have recorded the Etudes have chosen to do only a select few of them, their own favorite choices, rather than attempt all twelve at once.

No. 8, the "Wild Hunt," is the most overtly programmatic of the Etudes. I'm not sure just what they're huntin--wild boar, perhaps. The piece becomes almost jaunty toward the middle.

"Remembrances" is dreamily sentimental, but, fortunately, Ms. Ott keeps it from getting downright maudlin, maintaining a lovely, graceful pace. This and the "Landscapes" are among the highlights of the set.

The tenth movement is a sort of transitional passage, which exhibits Ms. Ott's pianistic dexterity to the utmost. It's followed by the two final sections, "Evening Harmonies," very homey, getting progressively more ambitious, and then "Snow Whirls," appropriately named and possibly influencing Debussy down the line.

Recorded by DG in June, 2008, the reproduction captures the piano quite close up, producing a detailed yet never bright, hard, or edgy sound. Indeed, there is a warm, natural glow to the notes, and while the piano looms fairly large, it does not stretch across the entire front of one's listening room.

My guess is that Liszt's Etudes appeal largely to piano enthusiasts rather than to the general classical-minded public. Some of the selections are highly pleasing, others more than a bit tiring. I suppose by offering all twelve of them, Ms. Ott gives the listener a chance to pick and choice which ones to enjoy.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa