As a composer, Liszt sometimes played the long game. The collection of ‘exercices’ published in 1826 in Paris as Etude en 48 Exercices dans tous les Tons Majeurs et Mineurs, and in Leipzig as Liszt’s Opus 1, became the 12 Grandes Etudes of 1838, and finally the Etudes d’Exécution Transcendante of 1851.The ‘childish’ works of Liszt’s adolescence, with their echoes of his teacher Czerny’s studies, are gradually transformed into Etudes which no longer copy his teacher; instead, they are dedicated to him.
The original studies are numbered, but not named with descriptive titles; those came in the final version, long after the pieces were conceived. Compare the somewhat pedestrian No 1 of 1826 (above, top) to its streamlined descendent – I like the way Berezovsky plays the opening rather safely and sagely, before letting go as the same phrase is repeated and extended.
This Preludio is in the comfortable key of C Major. Actually, that key can be treacherous: a sheer cliff-face of white keys with no fingerholds, so Liszt sensibly introduces a sprinkling of flats and sharps immediately, in a descending dominant 7th arpeggio and in the ascending RH figuration which follows. There are a few chords, a trill or two, further arpeggios – a taster of things to come. It’s all over in three pages, a flexing of the muscles before the Etudes Proper begin, but nevertheless an effective opening to the set.
Etude 2, here in its original form, starts the descending spiral of keys by taking us to A Minor. The 1826 version is not an easy option; its subsequent version, Molto vivace, a cappricio, tests alternation between the hands in a brisk tempo, sometimes with added interlocking. Energetic triplets scamper up the keyboard, while the rhythmic figure from the opening must be projected in its many appearances in the inner parts. The character is urgent and menacing.
Etude no 3 was named Paysage in its final version. To describe it as a study in chord playing sounds dull; the chords need voicing, shaping, balance; the melodies in octaves need careful legato fingering; the pedalling needs clarity. Having a ‘good technique’ is not only about speed and strength. Liszt ensures that the demands of cantabile playing are covered, too. Apart from the key of F Major, the1851 version bears little resemblance to its earlier model. There is real beauty in the harmonic changes of colour, and there are imaginative touches of bell-like effects in the upper register. Paysage translates as ‘landscape’; one wonders which landscape Liszt had in mind, if any, when he chose that title in 1851. His travels in Switzerland and Italy roughly coincided with the 1838 version.
Next – Mazeppa. That Etude will need its own post…