2016 was a strong 'Russian' year for Liszt’s Transcendental Studies, with releases from Dinara Klinton and Daniil Trifonov. Klinton impressed for her organic landscape, one, I wrote at the time, that she wanders and commands with easy grace and an authentically grand rhetoric. Trifonov (DG), less imaginatively produced, flamed with ne plus ultra glamour, high theatre and fearsome storms but not without edgy bumps and eccentricities along the way – narrative and poetry, tempo and technique, levels of point-making not always in accord.
Liszt's final 1851 revision unfolds a tale of selection and metamorphosis, retention, rejection and recasting, tracing the legend of the double-escapement concert-grand from straight-strung wood frame to cross-strung iron waiting for 1853 and the Bechstein-Blüthner-Steinway power revolution – music surpassing the norm, outside the limits of experience and beyond conceivable knowledge and comprehension. In the booklet note (an interview with Tom Service) Kirill Gerstein comments on what he sees (reasonably enough) to be the Austrian inheritance of the cycle – back to Haydn and Beethoven via Czerny, Liszt's teacher and dedicatee of the 1826 ur-version. He might usefully have included Hummel too. “We all know how fast and loud and virtuosic [these twelve studies] can be”, he reminds, “but sometimes they are played too loud, too fast, with too much noise […] they penetrate the nervous system of the player […] You are not the pianist you were when you set out on this journey.” Neither, he forgets to caution, is the listener.
Befitting a pianistic education from Berklee to Bashkirov, Gerstein is an artist of big technique, big sound and big projection. This upfront, 'inside the instrument', production does little to contain or flatter his attack. Finesse and intimacy rarely comes into the reckoning. More than once he falls foul of “too much noise”. His Steinway stays the course but the tone is hard, the dynamic range comparatively unvaried, and the aural onslaught relentless (‘Mazeppa’, ‘Eroica’, ‘Wilde Jagd’). Post-1950, third-generation 'studio' Lisztians like Kentner, Cziffra, Bolet or Berman needed no telling that tackling such music at consistently full tilt will rarely if ever be the best way to get its message across – pianistically, expressively or stylistically.
With time for a liqueur, they wooed us, they flirted with shadows, they conveyed the imperious with room to spare. Contrastingly, playing the 'more-is-more' card, Gerstein sets out to dominate, trading in a world I find altogether too black-and-white, too drivingly emphatic. Climaxes are over-intensified, delicate phrases are forced rather than coaxed, and wearing one's heart on one's sleeve takes on new meaning. When he does holds back, the dividends are palpable – ‘Harmonies du soir’ and ‘Paysage’, for example, come off well, notwithstanding the unremitting fullness of their voicing. ‘Feux follets’ is crisply machined but, like Trifonov's reading, doesn't match the brilliance or lightness of Klinton's – this really is her piece. Klinton, too, has the more beautiful measure of ‘Ricordanza’, her dreaming realisation (two minutes longer) nuanced with a perfume and languor sensually closer to Viennese Lieblingswasser than Gerstein's musk.