Franz Liszt was born in 1811 the year after Chopin’s birth, but unlike Chopin’s 39 years, he lived 76 years. And over his many years he was able to revise many works many times. The earliest versions of the etudes, according to Robert Schumann, are needlessly difficult, trading flashy technical stunts for musical intent. But in 1851 Liszt revised the 1838 version of the 6 Paganini etudes into the version programmed here.
Liszt was dedicated to the art of writing transcriptions. During an age before recording, one of his goals was to make available the compositions of great composers to a wide audience. In addition, Liszt did not write these etudes to display pyrotechnics. Rather his transcendental concept was to reproduce orchestral sounds on his favorite instrument. And unlike other composers of etudes, Liszt’s etudes are not generally specific to a particular difficulty, although number 1 seems to focus on the tremolo and number 2 is sometimes called the octave study as a result (I suppose) of it having some doozies!
As in other sets, the first etude is a warm-up piece. Liszt was one of the greatest pianists of any generation, and anyone who studies and performs the group, will need to discover how they move from one to the next physically. This understanding will aid in their interpretation and performance.
Of the six, number 3 is best known for its bells which ring from beginning to end. “La Campanella” is often times played separately as a member of a group of pieces, or as an encore. The theme actually comes from the Paganini 2nd violin concerto and not from the 24 violin caprices as do the remaining five. On this point Liszt was fascinated with the virtuosity of his contemporary Niccolo Paganini who, in this regard, was to the violin what Liszt was to the piano. The first etude begins and ends with elements from the violin caprice number five; its middle section is a transcription of the caprice number 1.
Number 4 was originally written on two staves but found one stave in its present form. Its arpeggios are light and fast. On the violin (from the standpoint of a pianist) the bow seems to bounce on the strings which seems to assist in its motion and helps set a particular tempo. However on the piano it is simply up to the fingers and arms; with some fast eyes added!
Number 5 “La Chasse” does seem to recall the hunt with its chorus of flutes, horns, open thirds and fifths.
Number 6, in variation form, utilizes a theme which fascinated so many of the great composers of the age including Rachmaninoff, Brahms, Lutoslawski, and others. It is unusually difficult in that each variation focuses on different technical problems.
The “Paganini” Etudes will be a joy to any pianist who will take the time to study, learn and perform them. Unlike the etudes of Chopin, Hummel, Moskowski and others, they are more ballad than study, and partly for this reason, listeners will continue to be drawn into the fun.