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8.571287 - LISZT, F.: 12 Grandes Etudes, S137/R2a (Biret Solo Edition, Vol. 3)

Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
12 Grandes Etudes, S137/R2a (1837)


Franz Liszt was born at Raiding, in Hungary, in 1811, into a German-speaking family. His father, Adam Liszt, had tried his vocation with the Franciscans, leaving the novitiate to enter the service of Haydn’s former patrons, the Esterházy Princes. From his father Franz Liszt was to inherit a firm devotion to Catholic beliefs and to St Francis, allegiances to which he later returned. Adam Liszt, employed by the Esterházys as an estate manager, was also an enthusiastic amateur musician, playing the cello in Haydn’s orchestra for the Esterházys at Eisenstadt and a friend of Haydn’s successor, Hummel. It was from his father that Liszt had his first piano lessons. It was eventually through the encouragement of members of the Hungarian nobility that the Liszts were able to move to Vienna in 1822, making possible lessons with Carl Czerny and bringing about, it seems, a meeting with Beethoven, a figure of continuing importance for Liszt throughout his life. From Vienna he moved to Paris, where Cherubini refused him admission to the Conservatoire. Nevertheless he was able to impress audiences by his performance, now supported by the Erard family, piano manufacturers whose wares he was able to advertise in the concert tours on which he embarked. In 1827 Adam Liszt died, after a return from a concert tour to England, and Franz Liszt was now joined again by his mother in Paris, while using his time to teach, to read and benefit from the intellectual society with which he came into contact. His interest in virtuoso performance was renewed when, in 1831, he heard the great violinist Paganini, whose technical accomplishments he now set out to emulate on the keyboard.

The years that followed brought a series of piano compositions, including transcriptions of songs and operatic fantasies, part of the stock-in-trade of a virtuoso. Liszt’s relationship with a married woman, the Comtesse Marie d’Agoult, led to his departure from Paris for years of travel abroad, first to Switzerland, then back to Paris, before leaving for Italy, Vienna and Hungary. By 1844 his relationship with his mistress, the mother of his three children, was at an end, but his concert activities continued until 1847, the year in which his association began with Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a Polish heiress, the estranged wife of a Russian prince. The following year he settled with her in Weimar, the city of Goethe, turning his attention now to the development of a newer form of orchestral music, the symphonic poem, and, as always, to the revision and publication of earlier compositions.

In 1861, at the age of fifty, Liszt moved to Rome, following Princess Carolyne, who had settled there a year earlier. Her divorce and annulment seemed to have opened the way to their marriage, but they now continued to live in separate apartments in the city. Liszt eventually took minor orders and developed a pattern of life that divided his time between Weimar, where he imparted advice to a younger generation, Rome, where he was able to pursue his religious interests, and Pest, where he returned now as a national hero. He died in 1886 in Bayreuth, where his daughter Cosima, former wife of Hans von Bülow and widow of Richard Wagner, lived, concerned with the continued propagation of her husband’s music.

Liszt was a musician of remarkable precocity. His first concerts in Oedenburg and Pressburg had been followed by his first appearances in Vienna, piano lessons with Czerny and composition lessons with Salieri. Setting out for Paris, he gave performances first in Pest, establishing his Hungarian identity, followed by a series of appearances in leading German cities, as, like Mozart before him, he made his way to Paris, where his performances created a similar sensation. A successful visit to England in 1824 was followed by a return to Paris and to composition lessons from Ferdinando Paer, who encouraged and collaborated in the composition of Liszt’s only opera, Don Sanche, ou le château d’amour, staged at the Paris Opéra in October 1825.

By the age of thirteen Liszt had started work on the most significant of his first published compositions, the so-called Etude en douze exercices, issued in Marseille and in Paris in 1826 as Opus 6, under the more ambitious title of Etude en quarante-huit exercices dans tous les tons majeurs et mineurs. In fact only twelve studies were published, with a dedication to Lydia Garella, of whom little else is known. These, however, formed the basis of later revisions, resulting in the Vingt-quatre grandes études of 1837, dedicated to Czerny and again including only twelve studies. These led, in turn, to the Etudes d’exécution transcendante of 1851, to which titles were added. The original intention is clear in the choice of keys, starting with C major, followed by A minor, and continuing with the circle of fifths, moving downwards into the keys with flats, F major and D minor, B flat major and G minor, E flat major and C minor, A flat major and F minor, D flat major and a final B flat minor.

The 12 Grandes Etudes of 1837 were published in Paris, Vienna and Italy, the first two with a dedication to Czerny and the Italian edition from Ricordi dedicating the second part of the set to Frederic Chopin. Liszt had worked on the studies during summer months spent in Italy. These years of travel had brought particular tensions between him and Marie d’Agoult, who increasingly urged him to curtail his career as a performer and spend more time with her. Liszt’s reputation as one of the most remarkable pianists of the time tended to provoke further prejudices against what seemed mere virtuosity. Schumann, whose music was coming to Liszt’s attention in 1837, two years later wrote unfavourably of the new studies, preferring the original set of 1826, and suggesting that Liszt’s virtuosity as a performer had prevented him developing as a composer. The Grandes Etudes would certainly have presented Schumann with an insuperable technical challenge.

The first study, now marked Presto rather than Allegro con fuoco, is of arpeggios, now covering a wider range of the keyboard. The second, a study in broken octaves, changes its tempo direction from Allegro non molto to Molto vivace and is more elaborate in figuration, moving forward to a Prestissimo, its accented left-hand quavers set against syncopated chords in the right hand. This is followed by a rather different F major Poco adagio, replacing the earlier Allegro sempre legato, and 6/8 taking the place of the original quadruple metre. With the additional instruction sempre legato e placido the left hand accompanies a singing melody in octaves in the right, leading, through a brief excursion in D flat major, to a passage marked Un poco più animato il tempo with staccato chords, sotto voce e sempre dolcissimo but leading soon to a dynamic climax, followed by a presto agitato assai, subsiding to a concluding dolce pastorale.

The final version of the fourth study, which was to bear the title Mazeppa, starts with an elaborate cadenza not found in the earlier studies. The original 1826 Allegretto becomes, in 1837, Allegro patetico, the melody tenuto e ben marcato, its relatively complex accompaniment sempre fortissimo e staccatissimo, the texture clarified by the use of three staves in 1851. What had been a relatively straightforward study in thirds becomes, in the second greatly extended version, a piece making severe technical demands on a performer. The following study, which was to become Feux follets, now starts with rapid and delicate demisemiquaver figuration, a fragment of melody heard in a middle voice, marked quieto espressivo, the whole moving forward to a demanding exploration of the range of the keyboard. The sixth study, in G minor, and now transformed from Molto agitato to Largo patetico, starts as a study for the left hand, before modulating to D major, when the right hand appears. A passage in octaves leads to an fff dynamic climax, marked mit Verzückung (With exaltation) and the study ends in a triumphant G major.

The study in E flat major, in 1851 to become Eroica, leads to a triumphant march, followed by bravura octaves and a Più animato ancora passage of accompanying arpeggios, sempre fuocoso and final descending arpeggios that extend over the whole keyboard. Now Presto strepitoso, and to become in 1851, as Wilde Jagd, an even wilder Presto furioso, the eighth study opens with a flourish, followed by staccato chords. This figuration serves as a foil to the later singing melody, A capriccio, quasi improvvisato, with its delicate accompaniment. The following study, in A flat major and marked Andantino, creates something new and nostalgic from the 1826 version, its central section a D flat major melody, with elaborate arpeggios and a cadenza before the return of the opening melody.

It is not long before complex cross-rhythms appear in the tenth study, an F minor Presto molto agitato, ending with a strongly marked Presto feroce capped by a final Prestissimo agitato ed appassionato. The tolling of evening bells marks the start of the eleventh study, a figure that returns. An expressive E major melody brings cross-rhythms, modified in the 1851 version, and there are demanding passages of octaves before the piece draws to a quiet close. There is a dramatic opening to the final study, left-hand octaves followed by a brief passage of recitative, marked dolente. A melody emerges, over a tremolo accompaniment, a continuing feature of a remarkable conclusion to a set of studies that presents a technical challenge rarely met.

An excerpt from the music notes of the Etudes d’exécution transcendante (1851) is provided below for the purpose of comparison with the earlier 1837 version on this CD:

Etudes d’exécution transcendante, S139/R2b (1851)

Busoni, in his edition of the Etudes, describes the opening Preludio, with its arpeggios and sequences relatively little changed from the 1837 version, as a means of testing the piano itself and the disposition of the performer. The untitled second study simplifies the broken octaves of 1837 and the third study, Paysage, remains dolcissimo and sempre legato, placido rather than tranquillo, ending in pastoral calm. The fourth study, Mazeppa, has the introductory chords of the separate publication, the working of 1840, published in 1847, now arpeggiated and followed by a cadenza, before the melody appears. Here three staves are used, the middle one for the accompanying figuration in thirds, the texture clarified and the whole now in quadruple rather than sextuple metre. The triumphant D major conclusion is now extended, with the added words from Victor Hugo ‘Il tombe enfin!…et se relève Roi!’, the mad ride to which Mazeppa had been condemned ending in final victory.

There is some lightening of texture in Feux follets, the fifth of the set, followed by the G minor Vision, an arpeggio study that explores the full range of the keyboard, with a passage of octaves leading to a G major fff. The E flat major seventh study, Eroica, has a shorter introduction to the heroic march than in the earlier version, and the following Wilde Jagd, now Presto furioso rather than Presto strepitoso, simplifies the contrasting capriccio, espressivo section, a brief relaxation in the wild chase of some ghostly, haunted huntsman. In the A flat major ninth study, Ricordanza, there is something of Chopin about the principal melody, introduced now with a slight syncopation, but greatly elaborated. Still retaining the appassionato mood of 1837, the F minor tenth study, with no additional title, modifies some of the original hand-crossing. In Harmonies du soir the opening tolling of the bells is no longer indicated in the score and is less obtrusively indicated in an evocation of evening tranquillity. The final Chasse-neige omits the 1837 introduction, before the B flat minor melody appears, with its italicise tremolo accompaniment, now a picture of a snow-covered landscape.

Keith Anderson

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