Of all Liszt's piano works, the 12 Transcendental Etudes are among the most exhausting and most finger-tangling. Few pianists have even recorded the complete etudes, and hardly any would consider these “starter pieces” for a relatively young career. Nevertheless, Alice Sara Ott, a pianist born in Munich in 1988 of German and Japanese parentage, treads fearlessly into these pieces for her second album for the Deutsche Grammophon label. It's this week's Full Rotation.
Liszt began composing the Transcendental Etudes in 1824, at 13, and they were published two years later. The pieces were reworked twice, and the final 1851 version is the most commonly heard today. As the title suggests, they pushed harmony, musical structure and the piano itself into transcendental realms.
The etudes demand a complete arsenal of technical effects, from massive thickets of chords to the most intricate (and often, physically implausible) fingerings. What confounds many artists is not simply the etudes' technical challenges, but how they swing from one mood to the next. Moving from, say, the madly galloping Mazeppa to the poetic Paysage requires a pianist whose mind can keep pace with his or her fingers. Ott not only displays the requisite technique and energy but also the right degree of clarity and restraint.
There have been other pianists who have arguably mined greater depths in this music–-Russell Sherman and Claudio Arrau are two that come to mind--but Ott shows much promise in her still young career.
Alice Sara Ott
Liszt: Transcendental Etudes