|A girl on her piano: Alice Sara Ott. Photo © 2010 Deutsche Grammophon|
Franz Liszt was the greatest piano virtuoso of the 19th century. These works started as piano exercises and instructional tools. But their 1826 version was considered too difficult to play. Liszt revised the works in 1837 (as the Douze Grandes Etudes) and again in 1852. For these, Liszt removed all passages requiring a hand-stretch of ten notes, making the works more accessible to the most talented amateurs. This is the most commonly heard (and recorded) version of the works.
Etudes are piano studies, designed to instruct the listener and the player in various aspects of the instrument and piano techniques. For Liszt, these works were another opportunity to show his worth as a composer while giving his slew of students at Weimar a living, breathing textbook from which to improve themselves. The pieces range from three-minute reflections to ten-minute keyboard bacchanals. Along the way, Liszt incorporates everything he knew. As a composer, he thinks orchestrally on the piano, using ten fingers to create the illusion of multiple instruments playing in counterpoint.
Ms. Ott plays these formidable pieces with a liquid, singing tone, flying up and down the keyboard as she tackles Liszt's wide octave leaps, arpeggios, trills, and other demands upon the hands. From the opening Prelude, (No. 1) she plays this music with a combination of technical finesse and wild abandon, keeping sight of Liszt's overall architecture as she rides her piano into the dizzying heights of his imagination.
It's all here in these twelve works: the hand-crossing gallop of Mazeppa (No. 4), tolling pre-Wagnerian funeral bells of Vision (No. 6), the insistent rhythms of The Wild Hunt (No. 8). Ms. Ott unleashes her Romantic soul on the melancholy meanderings of Ricordanza (No. 9), playing the trills and arpeggios with a liquid ease and plenty of legato. Harmonies de Soir (No. 11) seems to melt into nothingness at its close.
The final Etude, Chasse Niege (No. 12) features a cascade of notes at each end of the keyboard, oceanic swells of arpeggiated chords with the main theme singing majestically, somewhere in the middle. Here, Liszt is using the "third hand" trick, playing the main theme with the thumbs as the hands roam the keyboard. In the hands of Ms. Ott, what might be a cheap effect becomes a study in virtuosity, played with the utmost in musicanship and consummate taste.