Once a teacher, always a teacher: I cannot help but begin this review with a definition of "étude," since that's what we've got here from Chopin and Schumann, and not everyone may understand what they are. My WordWeb dictionary tells us an étude is "a short composition for a solo instrument; intended as an exercise or to demonstrate technical virtuosity." Wikipedia takes it a step further, saying it's "a French word meaning study, an instrumental musical composition, usually short, of considerable difficulty, and designed to provide practice material for perfecting a particular musical skill. The tradition of writing études emerged in the early 19th century with the rapidly growing popularity of the piano."
Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) composed two sets of études, Op. 10 (1833) and Op. 25 (1837). They were probably the first such sets of études to gain a reputation in the piano repertory, and virtuoso pianists continue to play them today. They were quite unique for their time, and, certainly, they are not easy to play. Franz Liszt, to whom Chopin dedicated the Op. 10 études, was among the first pianists to play them successfully, and they've been giving pianists a hard time ever since. Not even the great Chopin interpreter Arthur Rubinstein thought his performances of them good enough to record in their entirety.
Which brings us to Ukrainian-born pianist Valentina Lisitsa, who makes Chopin's études look easy. Ms. Lisitsa launched her career via social media a few years back with YouTube videos that became quite the rave of the music world. These days, she's been working a lot with violinist Hilary Hahn and recording for one of the biggest and oldest record companies in the world, Decca, so obviously talent will out. Her Chopin études are among the finest I've heard. Yet taste differs, and other listeners may find her manner too precise, relying more on technical skill and less on heart. Whatever, the Chopin fan may want to sample Lisitsa's études.
Ms. Lisitsa's playing is a marvel of exactness, and she swirls through the finger work with a commanding ease. Yet there is much elegance and refinement in her interpretations as well. If I had any minor reservation, it's that she does take some of these little études at a quicker pace than most other pianists do. While this leads to some thrilling moments, to be sure, some jaw-dropping dazzle, I'm not sure it expresses all of the softer, inner emotions these pieces have to offer. As I say minor; Ms. Lisitsa's showmanship should easily carry the day and win over most listeners.
In addition to Chopin's two sets of études, we get the Symphonic Études, Op. 13, including the five supplementary variations, of Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Schumann's études are even briefer than Chopin's, most of them lasting no more than a minute or so each, but they are no less difficult. As tests of a pianist's virtuosic skills, Schumann's pieces work perfectly. Yet it isn't easy to make each stand on its own merits. Ms. Lisitsa does a splendid job individualizing the works and investing each of them with an appropriate zest and vigor. No disappointments here, either.
I suppose when it comes down to it, one has to decide how many versions of Chopin's or Schumann's études one needs and whether Ms. Lisitsa's renditions are enough better or enough different than all the rest to warrant a purchase. After all, there are already fine recordings from Pollini (DG), Perahia (Sony), Andsnes (Virgin), Ashkenazy (Decca), Lugansky (Naxos), and others available, some of which one probably already has. I can only tell you that Ms. Lisitsa's performances and Decca's sound would not be out of place among the best of them.
Producer, engineer, and tape editor Andrew Mellor recorded the music at the Reitstadel, Neumarkt, Germany in June 2014. The sound captures the piano pretty accurately, with a modest distance involved. It's clear and clean, a trifle hard in the upper registers but probably accurate. I'd say it's the kind of sound that reflects well the precision of Ms. Lisitsa's style.
Incidentally, the running time of the album is a little over eighty-five minutes, which may be some kind of record for compact discs. I've been collecting and reviewing CD's since the early Eighties when Sony and Philips jointly introduced them in the U.S., and I don't think I've ever found one until now with a playing time as long as this disc. Remarkable.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: