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If you’ve worn out your copy of Georges Cziffra playing Liszt’s Transcendental Studies – and why wouldn’t you, because he da man – and are in the market for a newer model, should you direct your hard-earned cash towards Daniil Trifonov on Deutsche Grammophon or Kirill Gerstein on Myrios? Both are newly released and attracting praise like superlatives are about to outlawed by presidential executive order.
Like everything Trifonov touches, his Transcendental Studies are proudly personal statements and wilfully so on occasion – witness, for example, the roof-rocking intensity of the fourth study, Mazeppa, where the volatile harmony is allowed to churn up the structure, and the ‘recitativo’ section of the coda plays out as something approaching a mad-scene. Gerstein – who plays the definitive 1852 version of Liszt’s Twelve Etudes – sits more obviously in a tradition that stretches back to Cziffra.
Much has been written about how Gerstein’s background in jazz lends his performance an improvisational, power-to-the-moment flow. But despite his studies on the jazz course at Berklee and mentoring by jazz vibraphone guru Gary Burton, I’m not sure I hear it like that. At every turn, Gerstein peels the minutiae’s minutiae out from Liszt’s notation. The spread of dynamics he brings to the Preludio is far wider than Trifonov and his tease of holding back until that grand harmonic twist-in-the-tale injects the piece with narrative direction – this is more than a mere extended fanfare and intricately intentioned.
Not that Gerstein has everything his own way. The rhythmic lift that Trifonov brings to the seventh etude, Eroica, feels like a little piston has been inserted under every note; in comparison, Gerstein sounds a little too consciously like a marching band. No 10 is a little too literal and could do with an occasional smiling aside.
But those niggling objections shouldn’t put anybody off. Gerstein’s Mazeppa benefits, like the Preludio, from a litheness and balance of gesture where Trifonov’s aim is, apparently, to hammer the dial further and further into the red. Harmonies du Soir is an absolute marvel, as Gerstein throws the shapes of Liszt’s bell-like harmonies with the dexterity of a juggler – Debussy’s Images is just around the corner. The final Etude, Chasse-neige, has a deft contour of line filleted out from all the argpeggiated filigree, making the oncoming climactic section land with thundering inevitability. Realistically, hardcore Liszt buffs will need both new versions; but in terms of textural clarity and matured technique, Gerstein enjoys a slight edge.