A Concert to “Create Memories”
Russell Sherman, piano
Liszt’s 12 Transcendental Etudes
Jordan Hall, September 25, 2008
By Mark Kroll
Liszt published his Douze études d’éxécution transcendente in 1851, at the pinnacle of his career as a virtuoso, but he had actually been revising them over a period of 25 years. They began life in 1826 as the Étude en douze exercises, when Liszt was only 15, and there is evidence that he had planned to expand them into a somewhat sober (for Liszt, that is) didactic set of 24 etudes in all major and minor keys, similar to those of Chopin and, of course, J. S. Bach. Nicolò Paganini changed all that. Liszt was overwhelmed after hearing the charismatic violinist in Paris in 1832—“What a man, what a violin, what an artist! What sufferings, what misery, what tortures in those four strings!” he wrote to his student Pierre-Etienne Wolff—and he went into seclusion to completely rethink his approach to the piano and his persona. The Liszt that reemerged is the man who revolutionized piano playing and, to a large extent, the art of performance. He revised his earlier exercises and published them in 1837-38 as Études d’éxécution transcendente d’après Paganini, works of such terrifying difficulty that they transcended the abilities of most pianists to play them. Schumann estimated that they were playable by “…at the most, ten or 12 players in the world,” and he was probably overstating the number. Liszt made a third, “simplified” version in 1851, and this is the one with which we are most familiar today.
A pianist might find the description “simplified” something of an overstatement. Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes represent some of the most technically challenging works in the repertory. It is always an event to hear just a few of them, and a tour-de-force for any pianist to play all in a single evening. Russell Sherman did just that in Jordan Hall last Thursday, and he brought with him his formidable arsenal of fingers and probing musicianship for the occasion. Sherman also brought along decades of experience playing these iconic works, and the reflective and somewhat restrained approach of this 78-year-old artist is, in a certain sense, reminiscent of how Liszt himself might have played it at the same age. Our popular image of Liszt the pianist is the dashing, romantic figure on stage who plays with wild abandon, throwing his hands into the air, tossing his long hair and making large and extravagant musical gestures with every other part of his body. This was indeed the Liszt described by François-Joseph Fétis in 1840: “…the only pianist who had no fixed position, sometimes sitting left, sometimes right, his body in a perpetual state of agitation.” Liszt was in fact the first performance artist, a musician who freely admitted in 1839 that “The concert is—myself.” Not everyone was pleased, however. Schumann, for example, made the nasty comment that “if Liszt played behind a screen, a great deal of poetry would be lost.”
Sherman’s elegant performances, however, were not those of Liszt the “bad-boy” of the nineteenth century, the pianist who once held a lighted cigar between the first and second fingers of his right hand while accompanying Joseph Joachim in the finale of Mendelssohn’s E-minor violin concerto, or the stage idol who usually played the first few chords of one of the most famous and dramatic etudes, Mazeppa, simultaneously upon sitting down at the keyboard. His Liszt was the teacher who never charged for lessons, the visionary composer of the 1870s and 1880s who explored new tonal and atonal languages, the humanitarian who became one of the musical world’s most revered and respected senior citizens. Sherman displayed complete technical command over these etudes, of course, but he did so without the theatrical extravagances that made ladies swoon and Schumann frown. Admittedly, some listeners might have wished for a bit more flash and dash, but they were soon compensated with not only great piano playing but also great music.
One of Liszt’s students, the American Carl Lachmund, recalled hearing his teacher play the etude Feux-follets in 1885, but he could just as well have been describing Sherman: “The spirit and passion that this man still possesses at the age of 71 is marvelous; and how his hands flew from passage to passage!” Another student recorded in his diary that Liszt said the first goal in performance was to “Create memories!” Russell Sherman did that for us in Jordan Hall last Thursday.
Mark Kroll performs internationally as a harpsichordist and fortepianist.
His website is www.markkroll.com